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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

  The Vanished Hitchhiker

January 15, 2021
hitchhiker

By James Gallant

December 1971, a clear, cold late afternoon sky. Maya had good luck thumbing rides after leaving college in Des Moines that morning. She was now within thirty miles of her family’s home in Evansville. But for the last couple hours, she’d been standing by a two-lane road in rural southern Indiana, her backpack at her feet, cars and trucks whizzing by as if she were invisible.

She was making the mandatory trip home for the year-end Xmas shopping and gluttony revels conjured by the retail industry, with the assistance of spectacular imagery explosions: Coca-Cola Saint Nick, the stable scene in Bethlehem, jingle bells silver bells candy canes at the five and dime dreaming of a white Tannenbaum hung by the chimney with care. Scrooge and his entourage of spirits had materialized again with the reminder that anyone who didn’t shop until he or she  dropped one was going straight to hell; and  there was Bob Cratchit and (god-bless-him) Tiny Tim to obscure awareness of the atomized, essentially gratuitous, American family. The seasonal hoopla, whose continuance was guaranteed by cultural inertia, reduced millions to depression.

Maya liked the word “inertia.” Both of its contrasting definitions were appropriate where “the most wonderful time of the year” was concerned. “Inertia,” on the one hand, described tendency of things in motion to continue in motion until impeded by an external force or obstacle. Otherwise, the term referred to stagnation, immobilization, paralysis, and torpidity.

If “inertia,” in both senses, was valuable for describing the year-end holidays, it  described also the American educational system that involved her, superintended by what Paul Goodman called the “school monks”: the creeping sludge of curricula, schedules, and testings valuable mainly for developing habits useful once a person was conscripted into the employment army: showing up on time, sitting still, following  instructions.

She’d encountered recently in a college text, William F.  Ogden’s conception of “culture lag,” a form of inertia. As rural-small town America was undergoing transformation into a predominately urban and industrial society, Ogden observed in 1922 that the altered material circumstances did not prevent people from passing on from generation to generation mores, values, and folkways that had originated in other circumstances. Conflicts between expectations and reality were inevitable. “Culture lag” epitomized Maya’s life experience. She understood immediately what Ogden was saying without even having to read the book in which he had said it.

She’d been warned countless times about the dangers of hitchhiking, but she’d  never had any trouble on the road, and liked thumbing rides. There was a pleasing simplicity about having one’s attention being focused on the simple task of getting from here to there,  temporary liberation from the dubious purposes and artifice imposed on her otherwise.

However, she was feeling a little anxiety at the moment. It was getting late. Dusk came early that time of year. Traffic was sparse now, and the temperature dropping. A cold breeze blew fitfully. She was not far from Evansville, but too far to walk.

A huge full moon appeared on the horizon. From the back pocket of her jeans she withdrew a little red notebook whose cover bore the title she’d scrawled across it:  MANTRAS FOR ALL OCCASIONS. The “mantras” were lists of related words she’d jotted down, mainly synonyms, characterizing aspects of her life experience. In order that the moonlight would shine over her shoulder on the pages, she turned her back to the roadway. Her musings on inertia and culture lag attracted her to the page titled GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS. Listed under it were stereotyped, standard, walking through it, keeping up appearances, pro forma.

She flipped through the pages to PASSE: outmoded, defunct, dated, extinct, fusty, old-hat, out-of-date, faded, lapsed, obsolete. The enigmatic phrase “a posthumous society” which she had written in parentheses at the bottom of that list after encountering Ogden, brought a smile to her face.

A presence in the corner of her eye caused her to look back to the roadway. Approaching slowly, silently, was a  scene from a nostalgic Christmas card: a carriage pulled by four horses. The driver seated on the carriage bench above the horses, reins in hand, wore a top hat. She assumed the coach-and-four were participants in Christmas festivities somewhere, and it did not occur to her that might try to hitch a ride, but the carriage kindly stopped for her, and the door in its side sprang open invitingly.

“Are you going to Evansville?” she called up to the coachman, whose face was silhouetted by the moon so she could not see its expression. He did not reply, but simply extended an arm, and pointed a finger, to indicate his direction, which was toward Evansville. Wherever specifically the coach was bound, she would at least be going in the right direction, better off than where she was.

The coach was egg-shaped. She stepped through the open door. The dark interior was only large enough for a single person. There was no one inside. Who had opened the door? Seating herself, she felt the upholstery grip her shoulders firmly on either side. The door shut.

There was no sound of horses’ hooves or wheels turning on the pavement. It was as if the carriage were stationary, but looking through a narrow horizontal window in the side of the carriage she witnessed the illusory movement of the moon behind skeletal winter tree tops. It was as if the coach were flying.

When streetlights began to appear Maya supposed the coach had reached the suburbs of Evansville. She must inform the driver where she wanted to be let out, since for all she knew the coach might pass through Evansville, cross the Ohio River on the bridge to Kentucky, and continue into the South. Stagecoach compartments in historical films she had seen, had little windows that could be opened to allow communications between passengers and drivers. She felt along the front wall of the dark carriage, but found nothing of the sort. Perhaps she could get the driver’s attention by rapping on a solid surface, but she could not find one of those, either. The interior of the coach was a padded cell. She tried the door handle. It was locked.

Now the carriage was passing homes in residential streets, and when it came to a halt she saw through the carriage window a portion of a house door decorated with the blinking red nose of Rudolph the Reindeer, which could only be the battery-powered seasonal ornament her father installed every December. She had somehow reached home.

The carriage door opened. She got out. Making her way across the lawn to the porch, she watched the carriage continue down the street silently to the dark dead-end where it appeared to vanish.

The house door was unlocked. She entered. From the foyer she could hear a murmur of voices, and the dining room clink and clank of silverware on plates. She went to the doorway of the dining room where her mother and father, with her two younger siblings, were at the table.

“’Lo,” she said.

There was no response.

“’Lo,” she said louder.

Her little brother, the one with artistic skills, was drawing on a paper napkin.

“I expect Maya will be barreling in any time now,” her father said.

“If she didn’t decide to spend Christmas somewhere else,” Mother put in.

“O, she wouldn’t do that,” Dad said.

“I wouldn’t put it past her.”

“Goofy Maya,” her brother Timmy said. “I did a picture of her.” He handed around the table the cartoon drawn on a napkin, Maya glimpsed the caricature which featured her very large ears. The picture stirred general merriment.

“That’s not nice, Timmy,” Mother said.

“It’s a good picture,” Dad said, “but you shouldn’t make fun of your sister. She’s just trying to find herself.”

Maya was reminded of Alan Watts’ remark that people trying to “find themselves” could be trying for a long time, since they were looking for what did not exist.

“With Maya, we just have to batten down the hatches and be patient,” Dad said. “She’s smart, and there’s nothing with her that getting a job, marrying and having a couple kids won’t fix.”

“I’d be happy if she just stopped hitchhiking,” Mother said. “It’ll be the death of her.”

James Gallant’s “La Leona, and Other Guitar stories,” which won the 2019 Schaffner Press Prize for music-in-literature, is now available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. His e-novel, “Whatever Happened to Ohio?” from Vagabondage Press, and a collection of essays and short fiction, “Verisimilitude: essays and approximations,” published by Fortnightly Review press (UK), appeared in 2018. (Gallant has been an online columnist for FR since 2015 (http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/category/verisimilitudes/). His website is: www.jamesgallantwriter.com

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Song Looking for a Tune

January 8, 2021

By Travis Stephens

“What’s the matter?’ she asked for the third time in as many nights.

Tonight he was ready to say “nothing,” knowing it would sound half hearted. Low down half hearted, a song would say. Roman rolled those words around in his mind, probed them with his tongue. Can’t make it rhyme, can’t make it carry.

“I don’t know what’s the matter with you,” Susan said. “You’re in one of your moods.” They had moved into this place two years ago, glad for a house close to the city park. Now Susan could walk out with the dog and do a clockwise loop on the walking path. There were a lot of dogs in the neighborhood and Susan waked with a tight knot of Labs, spaniels and standard poodles. Roman’s dog, an otherwise proud Walker hound, had taken to whining and sometimes peeing in anticipation of the morning walk. Roman felt embarrassed for the dog.

That dog had been the impetus and star of his second best song, the one picked up by that handsome Nashville singer married to the Australian actress. Not that the singer needed a hit, but got one anyway. He put a little Oklahoma onto the song when Roman had wrote it with a Kentucky state of mind. A little moonshine and banjo around a hound who left him with his estranged wife. Nashville had run a fucking dobro over the best finger picking Roman ever tried. The royalty checks helped ease the pain, but goddamnit anyway.

His first hit, the song he was known for, was told through the eyes of a little boy whose father drove a truck “steering big wheels of sadness” for days at a time. A tear jerker in the best country tradition, with mandatory slide guitar wail. It ended with an uplifting final message.

“Where did that come from?” Susan asked, when he had played it for her.

“I dunno. Just did.”

“I don’t see how. Your Daddy teaches economics at Saginaw Valley.”

“It’s not about me, Sue.”

“It’s weird.”

Roman had been teaching composition at the two-year university and sending free verse poems out to literary magazines. He had shared the song with Debbie Garnet, a folk singer he had grown up with. Dated, briefly, too. Debbie knew someone who knew someone and when the publication contract arrived in the mail Roman thought it for one of his poems. The call from Jackie followed shortly after.

“Hey, bub,” Jackie said in her whiskey and Diet Coke voice, “you probably need a better agent. I got you covered right here.”

“I don’t have an agent?”

“You just book shows on your own? Oh, honey child, time to move out of your parents’ garage.”

“I don’t do shows. I’m not part of a band. I work teaching English and composition full time.”

“You’re just a Kris Kristofferson, ain’t you?”

“More like a John Moreland.”

“I don’t even know who that is.”

On Jackie’s advice he had rented a small studio and reduced his teaching to part-time.  He attended a songwriter’s workshop in Nashville, which Roman found to be exactly like any other writing workshop, full of snark and self congratulation. Jackie took him on a round of the smaller recording companies.

“Let me do the talking,” she said.

Roman paged through the press releases she was passing around.

“Wait, I’m not from Texas.”

“Hush. Everybody is from Texas. Just talk slower when anybody asks you something.”

“I’m not a trucker, either.”

“Don’t you worry about it. Nobody reads these things anyway.”

Afterward he was glad to go home. Nashville seemed  enamored with slight young singers with oversized guitars. These singers, usually attractive blond women, were guarded by a coterie of executives and makeup artists. Roman heard his songs when they emerged from a radio and sometimes struggled to recognize his writing. It was why they lived across the line, in the corner of Kentucky that abutted Arkansas. “Whooee,”Jackie, said, “why you want to live over in that cracker barrel?”

“I just like it, Jackie. We can afford a nice house there. Besides, it’s only a few hours away.”

“If you say so.”

Today Roman had taught class from eight to eight-fifty and had spent the rest of the day in his studio. The painter who had the adjoining studio had been spraying fixer on a series of abstract landscapes so Roman was forced to open his windows. Eventually he moved a stool onto the tiny galvanized steel fire escape and sat out there. It overlooked a lot of gravel, grass and the bones of a burnt out garage. As Roman watched a cat slunk along the cinder block wall. It moved with a sneaky furtiveness that spoke of having done some terrible wrong.

Roman strummed the guitar and mouthed a series of phrases that contained “cat”, “heartbreak”, and “night” which eventually tuned into a few good lines about tomcatting into the morning light. Not bad.

But that was it. No focus. A few words surrounded by daydream. These were full of jingles and carried by cliché. He was strumming when he heard movement behind him.

Stuart was a self taught painter who, Roman suspected, lived illegally in his studio. That couch looked too slept in. It wasn’t like Stuart had a string of models he bed. The artist was a pear shaped man with a mean set of eyes. He’d stepped into Roman’s open door and was wearing a full face shield. Roman saw him peel it off.

“Must be nice,” Stuart said.

“What?”

“To work with nothing. No paints or canvas. Man, I got thousands of dollars tied up in oil paints and gesso. You can just sit with a guitar.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Sure it is.” Susan had framed one of his songs and it hung on the wall. Stuart tossed his thumb at it. “What is that, two chords?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“You’d think all country songs would already been done. All the possibilities run through. We have been painting for hundreds of years. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. Rembrandt. You could go back to the cave painters. Thousands of painters. It’s art that never ends.”

“Listen” Roman said, “How much longer you going to be spraying over there? You about give me a headache.”

“I just did the first coat,” Stuart said. “Two more coats to go.”

Roman fled to his car. Tossed the guitar in the back and drove the opposite direction of home. He wasn’t hungry. Before he went two miles he saw a ROAD WORK AHEAD, followed by WAIT FOR FLAGGER. He drove slowly past yellow behemoths grubbing in the dirt. Roman stopped when a flagger in a safety vest stepped in front of him. She held her palm toward him like she could fend off a songwriter in a half ton of steel.

She stood in the road a yard ahead of his radiator with a flag held lazily horizontal. The flagger wore scuffed work boots and jeans, a gray t-shirt. Her hair tried to lift the hardhat. County tomboy. Roman tried to imagine what someone like that would say when she came home after a day of standing on a road shoulder. How was your day? Exciting. Today I saw a red sports car. Kids on a bus waved to me. How was my day? Like any day just outside the grave.

Were there any songs about flaggers? He couldn’t think of one. Most country songs glorified the manly pursuits—ranching, trucking, building stuff or knocking it down. Roman tapped on the wheel, playing with a loose string of words that might be coaxed into a rhyme. Flag, nag, brag. Wave, crave and save. Maybe wave the flag and tie it to the US flag. Checkered flag.

Darlene, he decided. Dar—leen. Like darling. She lived in a trailer—no, she lived on a little place just big enough for a horse. Dreamed of carrying the flag on horseback like she used to do at the rodeo, flag over her shoulder, proud and tall with a Stetson instead of a hardhat, a pearl buttoned shirt with those western yokes. Big smile for the crowd. let’s give her a hand, folks, Miss Darlene of Abilene….

“Hey.” The flagger was at his driver’s side window. She was not smiling. She placed her hands on her hips. “What’s the matter with you? When I lower the flag it means you can go. Okay?” He heard her say “Dumbass” just under her breath.

Roman stepped on the gas a bit too hard. Spat gravel at the car behind him and toward the flagger. Damn. So long Darlene. So long. Nobody sings about flaggers and now he knew why.

Travis Stephens is a tugboat captain who resides with his family in California. An alumni of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, recent credits include: 2River, Sheila-Na-Gig, Hole in the Head Review, GRIFFEL, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Tangalooma Dreaming

January 1, 2021

By Nicole Adair

Breeze, breeze, breezes. Lotti sat on a blue, plastic seat on the top level of the Tangalooma Flyer, as the cool morning air rushed past her. For a moment she closed her eyes and just breathed in the smell and salt of sea water, her shoulder-length brown hair whipping around her. She could hear the propellers underwater alongside the boat shooting out frothy bubbles of the churning ocean. They left two long strands of white, which floated on the surface behind the ferry before dissolving back into the ocean, as the blue and white aluminum catamaran bounded over Moreton Bay.

Lotti had missed the ferry with seating at the front. From where she sat facing backwards, she could still see the Sandgate mud flats on the mainland and the urban sprawl of greater Brisbane. The ferry terminal, where the river met the ocean in brown, brackish water, the muddy, beige beach extending out on either side, had already disappeared from view. Once out of the docks, the ferry had picked up speed over water that was already bluer. But it was nothing yet like Moreton would soon be, with its shimmering translucent turquoise and the bleach-blonde sands that ran around the entire shoreline of the island. Here it was wild and deep, and the ferry’s dramatic jumps over the surface made it clear that the ocean wasn’t flat like it seemed from above. Only from the moving boat could Lotti tell that the bay’s waves, though they would never break on the sandbank, were still monstrous. Once she got to the island, to Issa’s house in the Tangalooma hinterlands, she would look out at the water below, still and glimmering, like an open lake, and the island would be transformed into a lake of land itself, wrapped inside the calm and cool and meditative expanse of blue.

On the seat beside Lotti, two little girls, already dressed in their togs, with thick white stripes of sunblock painted on their cheeks and noses, scrambled over the empty plastic in a game that involved jumping to the ground in sync with the bounds of the Flyer. Lotti moved her small duffel bag onto her lap to free up space for the girls. The older one began the game, showing her sister, who was younger maybe by a year, how to jump. She landed with her hands and knees smacking the painted metal floor of the boat as the Flyer jumped upwards. From the ground, she grinned at her younger sister who prepared to follow suit.

Out of her peripheral vision Lotti could see their mother, a young women, possibly in her early-to-mid-twenties, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a tight-fitted white polo shirt, and cropped denim shorts. She inattentively read Cosmopolitan Australia, but kept one eye on the girls who jumped from the plastic seat one last time and then changed games, now running out toward the back of the boat to peer over the side. Lotti watched their small bodies collide energetically with the railing. They began to point knowingly out toward the now horizonless water, pointing to things that Lotti couldn’t see, things that were just for the two of them. Lotti felt the urge to glance back at their mother. But she resisted, realizing in the moment that she didn’t want to risk making eye contact with her; she felt that the girl might see through her, that she might somehow guess and then judge what Lotti had been doing for the past few months, how dangerously she had been playing with fire. Feeling a wash of anxiety–also for how quickly the seventy-five minute trip would take to Tangalooma and for what she would have to say to Issa once she got there–Lotti looked back out over the water.

The mid-morning sun was beating down on the water’s surface. At sunset, the rays would flicker and catch like fire on the waves. But with the sun now already high in the sky, the ocean looked like a giant pool of rolling crystals. Lotti adjusted the light jacket she wore over her long halter dress and thought of how the air would be hot on the island, especially up in Issa’s tin-roofed home that had no air-conditioning, that was thick and stifling in the dead of summer. Only when the wind was blowing inland would the breezes up there rush stronger, the draft through the house bringing with it the air that spun up from the crests of the waves on the rough side of the island. Tangalooma had a quiet, understated temper, but it was on the east coast that the Pacific Ocean was always raging.

She turned in her seat toward Kooringal, the most southern tip of Moreton Island and the meeting point of bay and wild ocean, where the island seemed to collide with the water that reached the shore from so many angles, where the sand bank ribboned out for kilometers, just barely contained beneath the water. She couldn’t see it yet, but she knew where it would be when the color of the evergreens came into view. She already imagined the light sands swirling with the aquamarine blues of the shallows, where you could lay, cooled by the water but warmed by the air, sunbathing both in the sea and out on the sand itself. But Lotti regretted the fact that she had no front view because it meant that she couldn’t watch for the iconic sand walls of the island’s west coast to appear on the horizon line, as the rest of it came into view, the tall dunes that marked the midpoint between the Tangalooma Island Resort and the Wrecks.

She thought about the Wrecks: fifteen rusted metal ships sunk decades before, now lying just off the coast, a strong swim away from the beach, an artificially natural habitat for fish and coral. They’d named the wrecked vessels after wildlife and small Australian towns: Groper, Morwong, Kookaburra, Platypus II, and Uki, Maryborough, Bermagui. For a second, Lotti couldn’t remember where she’d learned their names–or the very fact that they had names at all. But then she remembered and swallowed. It was Issa, of course. Issa always knew the history of artifacts and monuments, random sites and stories about South East Queensland, and she loved to tell Lotti stories each time she visited the island, somehow bringing each story back to Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa, as they would always say.

And then their adventures–Issa always had a new one. Lotti couldn’t help but let her mind remember how many experiences Issa had given her: Kooringal in the four-wheeler, Blue Lagoon on quad bikes, a hike up Mount Tempest the month after the wildfire stripped it bare, a run on the beach that continued on for miles in the middle of one of Moreton’s wild summer hailstorms, learning how to snorkel at the Wrecks, to swim out from the beach when the tides changed. Her memories of snorkeling she would treasure the most. She thought then of Issa checking her printable, salt-stained timetable of the tides, as they stood on the shore looking out at the ships, mask and fins in hand.

“Ten minutes,” Issa had said, sitting back down on the towels they’d laid out on the sand.

“Then what?”

“Then we can go.”

“Why ten minutes? Does it make that much of a difference?”

“When the tides change,” Issa told her, “the current is completely still for about five minutes. We won’t get swept out into the bay or, you know, down into the propeller of the Tanga ferry.” She held Lotti’s gaze for a moment, and then they both burst out laughing.

“Fine, you queen of tides,” Lotti replied playfully, “my life is in your hands for the next fifteen minutes.”

Issa kissed her on the cheek and said, “Yes, once we get out to the wrecks, you’re on your own.” And they laughed again.

When they finally geared up and headed into the water, Lotti got a thrill, as she did every time, not just from seeing the small, white fish that darted through the shallows, but from the sand bank’s drop off, which angled downward steeply for some time until it turned into dark blue and then almost to black, and Lotti couldn’t see a thing through her mask as she swam. Only the white specks, like snowflakes, of sea dust were visible, and the translucent bubbles that her arms made in front of her as they pulled the water back to push her body forward. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of Issa’s dark arms and neck and torso gliding through the water beside her. Often Issa tried to speak to her through the mask, pointing to fish that she had seen, exclaiming everything delightedly to Lotti in an incomprehensible gurgle. But Lotti’s eyes always missed them, as the fish darted from the surface. Concentrating on her breathing, she couldn’t turn her head fast enough to spot them against the ocean darkness.

When Lotti and Issa finally reached the ships, the metal walls and hulls and rusty pieces of cabins and chains and door frames came into sudden view sitting beneath the water. Even the ocean floor would inexplicably become visible, and Lotti would examine with joy the creamy sand color that was always covered in schools of brightly colored fish darting in and around the coral or floating with the rushes of waves, which came with every passing motor boat that spun up on the surface. On special days, they saw the sea swarming with packs of wobbegongs. Speckled with patterns of orange and yellow, the carpet sharks moved quickly but gently over the sea floor, and Lotti always felt lucky whenever she saw them.

A shriek from the Flyer pulled her back to the present. Hanging onto the railing, the little girls had begun a new game. The older sister pulled the younger’s hat down over her eyes so it covered half her face. Then, laughing, she cupped her hands to yell against the wind something into her sister’s ear. The younger immediately pulled up the hat, pointed out over the water, and laughed wildly, gleefully in return. Then the Flyer bounced over a particularly high wave, and the girls swung around, one hand still gripping the railing but their bodies smacking against the metal.

Lotti’s face flushed with maternal anxiety. The sun pricked her arms, and she looked around for the mother. She no longer felt self-conscious but rather indignant, a little self-righteous, about the mother who was mindlessly, it seemed, letting her daughters be thrown around by the boat. But when she saw her, the young mother, she was waving calmly at the two little girls, a relaxed, unfazed expression on her face. The girls were waving back, jumping up again with grins on their faces. They giggled to each other and turned back to the railing.

Lotti looked away over the water. She felt annoyed at the mother, at how unrealistically collected, how unworried, she seemed. But then her eyes focused, and she saw the green strip of island coming into view on the horizon. They were forty-five minutes away. Lotti knew that Issa would be standing on the jetty already, holding lilies and wearing sandals, her toenails painted royal blue, her legs long and brown and wrapped in a sarong at the hips. The blue bikini she wore would match the color of her nails, and she would have no shirt to cover the bikini triangles that held her breasts. Issa would wave and smile exaggeratedly as soon as she saw Lotti on the ferry, and the dimples on her cheek would deepen. Lotti could picture her long braids, which Issa often pulled back into a thick ponytail, and the half-moon birthmark tattooed by her eye.

Lotti’s face flushed again, but now for a different reason. She didn’t want any of this anymore. She didn’t want Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa. She didn’t want the “escape” from real life that was no longer working. She had felt it on her last visit, the claustrophobia of the perpetual holiday, the fear and guilt that came with her attempts to flee the real world. There was something tight and bitter about the idea of Lotti and Issa forever. The mantra that she had repeated so often in her head, as a way of getting through her other life, had begun to sound dull. As fun as her memories were, she could barely tolerate the thought of having to continue actually living them. The rhythm of Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa battered her mind, now an involuntary chorus inside her head.

This trip was the last time she would see Issa at Tangalooma, she had determined. It had to be. She had felt it on her previous visit and increasingly since then, the need to catalyze her life, the real one, in some way. She could no longer pretend that she had no other life at home in Brisbane. She had a family. Children of her own. The sun was suddenly burning Lotti’s arms, and she felt sick thinking about the affair that she’d carried out for so long, how all this time she’d been playing with fire. How she was risking it all for something that would only ever be an illusion.

But then, she thought, maybe Issa sensed this too. The last time Lotti had visited, Issa had pressed her about the time she spent away.

“I wanted to work on our canvas,” she said, “but you missed spring.” She had twisted around from where they sat on the floor of the living room, where Lotti had been mediating on the yoga mat. Issa lifted a wooden box from the couch.

The box was an old miniature desk for a toddler, the surface small and angled on a slant. Issa had decorated it a while back when the two first met. Eyes from photo magazines cut out and pasted all over its top and sides, then covered over with the clear paste used for paper-mâché. The box lid was coming loose from its hinges.

Lotti took the box from her, scooted backwards on the mat. Issa came beside her to watch her lift the lid. Inside, filled to the brim, just feathers and feathers and feathers. Tiny plumage, whites and blacks and blues. Many blues, some like the royal blues Issa always wore, others greying, others almost purple. They all came puffing out. Some were blowing with the breeze. Others just swayed gently, but stayed inside the box.

“There are so many.” Lotti said. “I can’t believe you remembered to collect them all while I was gone.”

“Of course I remembered.” Issa frowned. She paused. “I always remember.” Then she looked Lotti straight in the eye. “I am always going to remember.”

Lotti glanced up at her. “Well,” she started, trying to be chipper about it, “there are so many. We’ll have so many to work with.”

But Issa wouldn’t let it go. “I had a lot of time.” She shook her head. “I didn’t want to keep working on it without you.”

Lotti inhaled sharply, but before she could reply, Issa stood, her face barely expressing the unspoken words between them, and headed into the studio. Lotti followed her in and watched as Issa pulled back the giant sheet that covered their canvas that leaned against a set of chairs, a makeshift easel. It stood by the window on top of a thick plastic floor cover spattered in paint splotches.

“You really did keep it right where we left off, didn’t you?” Lotti said, trying to laugh good-naturedly and examining the canvas. It was their ocean masterwork, a thirds of the way covered already with the small feather puffs glued as close as possible, marked by the longer feathers, some white and some black, of cockatoos. Those were the shadows that dipped and rose with each wave on the ocean. But most of the feathers were so small, some even the size of half a finger, and even the tiny ones were always colored. Lotti and Issa would dot the small white keratin strips of each feather with a cue-tip of glue and then softly pressed the feathers into the canvas surface. The smaller feathers made the rough texture of the canvas even more noticeable.

“It’s all ready for us to jump right in,” Issa said, pulling up their two chairs in front of the canvas and setting the box of feathers on a small table beside the chairs.

“Shall we ease into it?” Lotti said, trying to laugh, to keep the mood light. “Maybe we can start tomorrow.”

Issa dropped her arms, her brow furrowed. She swallowed and turned to look at Lotti. “We have a lot of work to do.” Her voice was filled with anxiety, annoyance, desperation. “You were gone so long… if we want to get through all the feathers I collected, we need to start straight away.”

“Issa…”

“Don’t you want to continue the artwork?”

“Of course I do, but…”

Issa shook her head and, without another glance in Lotti’s direction, she grabbed an empty paint bucket from the floor of the room. “I’m going to gather the macadamias before they all start rotting.” And she left, the bucket swinging in her hands.

Lotti heard the screen of the front door squeak open and then clang shut.

“You’re it!”

Lotti looked around the on the ferry as the little girls ran past her.

“No, you’re it!” The older sister tagged the younger on the shoulder who squealed as they changed direction, running between the rows of plastic seats that lined the ferry balcony.

Then Lotti heard another voice. “Ava, Aria!” The young mother was standing up now. “We’re almost there. Come back up your things.”

Lotti looked back toward the island. It was true, she could see Tangalooma coming into view. She could make out the tall palms that stood at the edge of the sand and the townhouse villas that lined the beach behind them, though they were mostly just a wash of white and blue amidst the dark green trees. Behind the first row of residences was the taller resort complex, built partly into hillside. In ten minutes they’d be docking at the jetty, and Lotti would see Issa’s face appear, her black sunglasses blocking her eyes, her black braided hair bleaching ever so slightly in the sun, the light kissing her face.

It was almost time, and Lotti thought of everything she wanted to say. That their feather artwork was great, but that she needed to find a way to be creative more regularly, in her real life; that their adventures were thrilling, but that too, she needed to learn how to make a part of her who she was back in the real world.

She imagined Issa’s cold response. “This is real life, Lotti.”

And Lotti would pause because she wouldn’t know how much to tell Issa. In her momentary cowardice, she would concede a little. “You know what I mean.”

Issa’s suspicion would appear in the scrunch of her eyes. She would cross her arms and say, “Not really. No, I don’t know.”

In the imaginary conversation, Lotti was still searching for the words. “Come on, Issa. You know what I mean. This is…”

“This is what? What is it?”

“A holiday… a special time, outside of time… it’s an escape from the real.”

Issa’s face would get tighter and darker. “I’m not real?”

Lotti would try to laugh, but even then she knew it wouldn’t be convincing. She could say, “Of course you are.” But then she’d be thinking that, no, Issa wasn’t real. She wasn’t real enough. “Not anymore,” she would say instead, letting her arms fall limply at her sides. And then she would have to watch Issa’s face fall too in the confusion and the upset and the anger that would take a hold of her entire body.

And it wasn’t just that it wasn’t real, but that it was too risky. She was risking her own children, playing with fire. She needed to be there for them, no matter how unhappy she was.

The Flyer was pulling up to the jetty now. Beside Lotti on the boat, the two little girls had been calmed. At their mother’s command, they were threading their arms into the loops of their backpacks. The young mother was rubbing another layer of sunblock onto their toes, then slipping back on their thongs.

Lotti reached down to the blue plastic seat for one of their hats. “Don’t forget this.” She passed it to the young mother.

The girl took the hat, looked up at Lotti, and smiled. “Aw, thank you so much. You must be a mother too, eh?” She shook her head with a laugh. “They’re a wild bunch, aren’t they?”

Before Lotti could reply, the little girls ran off toward the front of the ferry, racing each other to be first in line, their mother following closely behind.

Lotti watched them step off the boat onto the docks. She wasn’t searching for Issa’s face in the crowd, but thinking for the first time ever that this place was still real. It had always been real and would always be. Suddenly she could picture herself out in the real world, here, coming back with her son, with her own two daughters. The four of them renewing this place together. She could already see it, each of them gripping each other’s hands as they stepped out onto the island.

Nicole Adair is an Australian-American author, composer, and game designer based in New York City. She received her MA in English-Creative Writing and her PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Adair has worked closely with authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Vikram Chandra on long- and short-form fiction that explores themes related to Australia, climate change, and the different mediums of art (image, text, video) as tools of storytelling. Her fiction appears in World Literature Today.

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Christmas, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Waiting For Flicker, Christmas 1963

December 18, 2020

By Byron Spooner

“The holidays are hard on everybody,” Mother says, stubbing out her half-smoked Kent in a chocolate-smeared dessert plate, as if that might head the conversation off at the pass. If Dad were here he’d be giving Mother his usual hyperbolic ration of shit about smoking, but he’s long gone so she can do pretty much anything she Goddamn well pleases. Plus, she only smokes about three or four a day. Five, tops. If I could get away with that I’d still be smoking.

Arranged around the table in roughly the same configuration as at that lunatic Christmas dinner forty-odd years before, the three of us are the only ones left and none of us remembers exactly. Not that it matters.

“And really, what was Dad thinking?” my brother Davey says.

Which is exactly the question Mother doesn’t want me or Davey asking, the start of a discussion she’s endured many times; another rehash of that evening we still tell stories about—obsessively, she would say—and embellish and laugh about, at our increasingly infrequent gatherings. She hopes she can still steer clear of it.

“Who knows?” I say.

“Who cares?” Mother says too late.

At the head of the table, the tinsel-shimmering tree in the bay window behind him, looming over us, was six-and-a-half feet of Dad. He was halfway into his third martini. At the other end, Mother, tiny and starting to put on weight, had a VO on the rocks within easy reach; who knew how many she’d had in the kitchen. The entire Northeast region, as the weatherman called it, may have been glazed stiff from three days of continual freezing rain, but inside the heat was on full, the food was steaming. The perfect way to bring the day to a fitting finish.

Granted, the morning’s gift exchange hadn’t gone as well as it could have. Davey and I had each gotten at least one thing we wanted and had managed to keep the whining to a minimum. Davey, at seven, had been, for weeks, nearly beside himself with anticipation; I played it cool, it was my tenth Christmas and I acted the unimpressed veteran. Dad’s asshole buddy Garnett and his glamorous wife Marge were with us and, as always, exchanged token gifts with Mother and Dad. But they’d been staying with us ‘for a couple of weeks’ since around April. Another thing for Mother to be chronically pissed off about.

Things got off on the wrong foot early when Dad gave Mother a flat white box with red wrapping paper and a gold ribbon. She unwrapped it carefully, putting the paper and ribbon aside intact, and slid the top off the box. She peeled away the tissue paper and slowly, with a puzzled smile on her face, held it up for view in front of us before she realized what exactly it was; the flimsiest, shortest, sheerest negligee legally offered for purchase within the borders of the contiguous United States. There were straps going every which way with seemingly no imaginable purpose, it looked as if the whole rig couldn’t modestly cover one of the cats. What there was of it was the thinnest black fabric with blacker vertical ribbing and a feathery—or maybe furry—scarlet trim. The second she realized what it was, her smile disintegrated and she flushed red as the trim, dropped it back into the box while trying simultaneously to refold the tissue paper around it, jam the top back on the box—if she could have rewrapped it she would have—and drop it on the floor next to her. She couldn’t look at anyone in the room, instead scowling at the box as though it were a Great Dane soiling her clean floor.

“Go ahead, try in on!” Dad said to her, leering slightly and elbowing Garnett.

“What was that?” Davey asked, “What’s it for?”

What was Dad thinking? Did he mistake the flush of embarrassment and anger on her cheeks for some rosy dawn of eroticism, a pinkening of the cadaver of desire afresh? Was he so out of it that he misinterpreted the obvious signals?

Mother was short-tempered the rest of the day and when I asked Dad why, he said, “Christ, who knows? It’s always something with her.”

Dad wore his suit to dinner nearly every day and there was no reason Christmas dinner should be any different. Expecting guests, especially wealthy guests like Aunt Doobie and Uncle Flicker, brought out the blade in him. Flicker had inherited money—“a shitpot full,” according to Dad— from his family. Money made from the manufacture and sale of a nationally-known constipation remedy. Which was what made “shitpot full” even funnier, again according to Dad.

When Flicker wasn’t around Dad referred to him as the “The Laxative King,” but on the rare occasions Flicker was around he sucked up to him unsubtly, calling him “My favorite brother-in-law” and stuff like that. It was Dad’s conviction, his only unshakeable tenet of belief, that the one and only reason Flicker existed on the earth, the reason he’d been born of woman and suckled and nurtured and expensively educated and raised to maturity and unleashed on an unsuspecting and undeserving world in all his slim, urbane, cigarette-holder-sporting, Thunderbird-driving, condescendingly-nasal-voiced glory, was to make Dad look bad.

Dad’s attitude was: You never knew when a rich person might be suddenly convulsed by the irresistible urge to begin handing out random cash. Stranger things had happened after all and there was no reason not to be close by should such a compulsion come over Flicker.

But Doobie and Flicker, never the most reliable of jetsetters, still had not shown. They were already a couple of hours late when Mother and Dad powwowed in the kitchen, hissing and whispering. Mother wanted to go ahead and serve; dinner was going to be too late for us kids if we waited much longer. Dad wanted to hold off for another hour or so. Mother’s winning point, the one that changed Dad’s mind, was ‘If we stall around any longer the roast’ll be ruined.” Overdone and tough. Hearing this, Dad, who liked his beef cooked ‘so it moos’ immediately relented and started herding everyone in sight to the table. He always said sophisticated people ate their meat rare.

With or without Doobie and Flicker, Dad had been looking forward to the Christmas roast since sometime around the Fourth of July. He loathed Christmas and all things associated with it but wasn’t about to let that spoil a good meal. Just because he’d been collecting Unemployment for the better part of nine months didn’t mean we couldn’t splurge a little for the holidays. The roast alone had set him back enough to feed the entire family the usual slop for a week. We’d be eating nothing but macaroni and cheese and store-brand canned crap into mid-January at least, but it would be worth it. Mashed potatoes, peas with pearl onions, Parker House rolls, real butter, Jell-O salad. Gravy. Garnett had said he’d kick a share into the pot but came up short, having been unemployed even longer than Dad.

Dad seemed to hover over the roast, a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, letting the anticipation build.

He peered into the gravy boat, the good one our grandmother had given us, silver and shaped vaguely along the lines of Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, from over his glasses. If you asked him—not that anybody ever did—there was never enough gravy; the woman never made enough. If it had been up to him he would never, ever, have to ladle out the gravy in carefully measured, niggardly portions as if we lived in the poorhouse or something. If it had been up to him, he’d have poured it. He’d have poured it on his meat, his potatoes, his vegetables, his salad, his goddamned ice cream, if he wanted to. He’d float the whole flipping meal in it.

And he always, at this point in the proceedings, asked the same question, “The gravy situation is MIK, I presume? More In Kitchen?”

“Just what’s there,” Mother said, her voice tense. To her, the most galling part of the whole performance was he always, no matter how many times he trotted out the same tired line, felt the need to translate the acronym for her. Did he think she hadn’t heard ‘More In Kitchen’ the last two hundred times he‘d said it? Did he not realize he was prodding a hornets’ nest with this MIK nonsense?

He shared a downcast look with us kids, and then with Garnett and Marge, as if to say, ‘See how much I have to suffer?’

He paused for another solemn moment.

“I must say that Christmas dinner is always extra special when I’m serving all these wonderful people. All these people who are so close to me and whom I love so dearly.”

Was he sincere or just bullshitting us? Probably a little of both if my ear could be trusted. It was hard to know.

“I know we’re all broke this year…”

“Just like last year…” Mother muttered.

“…but there are still some things…”

“…and the year before that…” she continued.

“…that are more important…”

He went on from there, blessing each of us several times including the roast and the gravy and the pearl onions, with the gravy ladle.

“A-men, a-men,” Marge said.

“God bless us one and all,” Garnett said. He was defrocked minister, so he still knew how to make stuff like that sound sincere and insincere at the same time..

“The food is getting cold,” Mother said.

Carefully and with all the high-seriousness befitting the occasion, Dad carved the roast and doled out the slices, a few at a time. His disappointment was obvious as each successive slice peeled away; the meat was gray, without even a trace of pink, through and through. The rest of us, hungry and not nearly as worldly as Dad, fell on the food like starved peccaries. All the while we kept one keen eye on the remaining food and plotted ways to get a little more than the others when the time came for seconds. Everyone talked at once: the gifts, the rain outside, the fire in the fireplace, Santa, Christmases past, Dickens, the Grinch, a week off from school.

No one mentioned Kennedy, who’d been shot and killed just over a month before.

“We’re not going to spoil our Christmas just because that sonofabitch is dead,” Dad had said, earlier in the day, making clear his position. As if there had ever been any doubt.

Garnett pulled a palmed marshmallow out of Davey’s ear. He kept a bag of them hidden in his coat pocket. Davey giggled.

“I love this time of year; the Christmas trees, the decorations, the store windows,” he said.

“Yes, it is lovely isn’t it? Why don’t we drive into the city tomorrow and see the decorations on the big stores one more time before they take them all down,” Marge suggested.

“Good idea,” Mother said, “We all get tired of being cooped up in the house after a couple of days. I know I do.” A glance at Dad.

Dad rolled his eyes ceilingward. Not his idea of a fun way to fill an afternoon.

“Did you see the guy owns the hardware store downtown?” Dad said, “He stuck a sign in his window says, ‘Give Your Husband a New Screw for Christmas!’ You might want to take the kids past that way. Good for a couple of laughs.” It was always hard to pinpoint who his intended audience was for this kind of thing. The rest of us could practically hear Mother simmering at the other end of the table. He was oblivious. At least it seemed so.

Garnett laughed, as would be expected, but Marge hid her mouth behind her napkin.

“Why would you say something like that at this table, with the children here, everyone in such a good mood?” she said.

“It’s a joke, m’dear, a joke. Best just to let it pass.” Garnett said, pulling another marshmallow from Davey’s ear. I monitored this pretty closely. Usually after another highball or two he’d switch from marshmallows to quarters. You wanted to be around for that.

“I hear Doobie and Flicker are headed for Aruba after the holidays,” Dad said.

“Yes, they are,” Mother said, perking up, momentarily encouraged that her husband had been paying attention to something other than his own needs for a change.

“Maybe they decided to head down there early,” Dad said.

“I understand it’s lovely this time of year,” Marge said.

“Me, too,” Garnett said, “No freezing rain, at least.”

“Art Plouts had a buddy went to Aruba,” Dad said, “He told me it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Art Plouts?” Mother said.

“I remember ole Art,” Garnett said, “Wasn’t he…”

“Art Plouts?” Mother said again, incredulous, wanting none of Art Plouts, a gin-soaked housepainter Dad had met in a barroom in Memphis who’d mooched room, board and booze off us for several months in exchange for a couple of shaky coats of exterior white.

Mother said, “If Aruba’s such a hellhole how come people are practically killing themselves to get there?”

“Just ‘cause you’re rich, doesn’t make you smart,” Dad said, directing this at me and Davey as if it were a valuable piece of advice.

Mother said, “I guess by that measure you’re about the smartest man in town.”

He gave her a look of wounded incomprehension.

“You should be a regular genius,” she said.

Garnett reached over and pulled a quarter out of my ear. I must have miscalculated his rate of consumption.

“You and Art and all your other deadbeat friends? You idiots think it’s smart to not work? You and your friends are too fucking smart to hold a steady job?”

The table went silent.

Garnett issued a barely audible burp.

Dad swore like a drill sergeant, we heard obscenity and profanity daily—hell, hourly—from him. It had only been only a year or two since I’d figured out ‘motherfucker’ wasn’t another word for ‘lawnmower.’ Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, exclamations, he swung the words the way Dizzy Gillespie swung high notes, the way Jackie Gleason delivered a punch line, with precision and artistry, yes, but also for the sake of pure entertainment. But that word—Fuck—coming from Mother, and not just the word but in that tone, in front of her children and Marge and Garnett, and on Christmas, was nothing but unalloyed rage. It sent a charge of fear through the room.

“See here,” Marge said.

“Shut up,” Mother said, “You’ve been on my last nerve all day with your holier-than-thou, high-and-mighty attitude, so right now, just for now, why don’t you shut up?”

After a minute and with deliberate and exaggerated patience Dad said, “If you’re referring to the alleged differences between me and the sainted Flicker, I would like to point out, A, he’s never had to lift finger one in his entire pointless goddamned existence. B, he inherited everything…”

“It wasn’t Flicker who gave you the idea for that…that…filthy…thing you tried to give me this morning. That idea had to come from Art or some other dirty-minded friend of yours.”

“I came up with that on my own…” he said, leering again at the memory.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Garnett said.

“And in front of these poor children…?”

“…and, getting back to my original point, don’t forget, C, everyone…” he said, going back to his list, his forefinger pointing to the ceiling, massively oblivious to what was coming.

“…and on Christmas…?” she said, wanting nothing more to do with his alphabet.

“… on the entire face of the planet…”

“And…in…front…of…all…these…people?”

  As she said this last, she jumped out of her chair, gripping the edge of the table, bringing her end up with her as she rose.

“…kisses his rich ass…”

Like all tragedies, this one happened in slow motion.

We all watched breathless, frozen in place, useless, as Mother tilted her end of the table upward and sent an avalanche into Dad’s lap; the tablecloth with our dinner, dishes, silverware, serving platters, water glasses, the cocktails, the roast, the Jell-O salad, the peas with pearl onions, the mashed potatoes, the gravy—the gravy! Dad tried to save the roast, grabbing it as it sailed by. At the same time, he tried to stand, to get out of the way of the rest of our dinner, but in his rush to throw himself clear his legs got tangled in his chair legs; his left shoe clomped onto the silver-plated gravy boat, half-flattening it. He slipped in the spreading slick of gravy and fell backwards, kicking out, shooting the gravy boat, which no longer resembled Aladdin’s Magic Lamp or anything recognizable, at a terrifying speed and sending it smack against the opposite wall. It ricocheted back at him, caroming off the ceiling on its way. There was still enough gravy in the ruined thing to spatter Dad’s face and clothes when it struck him square in the forehead and rattled to the floor, came to rest in nearly the exact spot it had taken off from. More stunned than wounded, he fell backwards into the tree, bringing it down with a great, sickening crash. The plugs on the Depression-era light strings sputtered and smoked under the strain and finally gave up the ghost, flickering once, twice, and dying. Dad sprawled on top of the ruined tree, the roast resting on his chest like some wet trophy.

“Shit,” Dad said.

An extended stunned silence ensued punctuated only by the miniature crash—Ding!—of a last glass ornament dropping to the floor. We all sat in our chairs feeling suddenly exposed, absent the table, napkins in our laps, knives and forks still in our hands

“God bless us one and all,” Garnett said and Dad, from where he lay moaning, his suit gravy-spattered and covered with pine needles, could only laugh. He always thought Garnett was a fucking riot.

“A few years ago,” I say, “It came to me that the world didn’t need me to point out all the already obvious hypocrisies of the season. Most people work out ways to live with them, reconcile with them, so they can still enjoy the season. And I’m not helping anything by acting like Dad; trying to convert everyone into an atheist or a Scrooge. So he hated Christmas? So what? What gave him license to go around spoiling everyone else’s holiday?”

“So if you don’t have anything nice to say I just dummy up? ” Davey says, “Doesn’t sound like you.”

“It’s the new me,” I say.

“How’s that working out for you?” Davey asked.

“So-so, I’d have to say, Dr. Phil,” I say, I’ve been the other way for so long it’s just habit to be that way.”

“Forty Christmases under our belts since that one,” Davey says, “I guess we’re the last of them.”

I ask Mother, “What happened to Garnett?”

  “After your father died, I lost touch with Marge and Garnett,” Mother says, “I assume they’re gone. It was no state secret I never really cared much for them.”

She always said that, “No state secret.” Some things never change. Actually, most things never change, if you think about it.

“No, it certainly wasn’t,” Davey says, laughing at her understatement.

Mother says, “The last we heard they’d gone up to Providence to live with Marge’s sister, ‘looking for work’—probably sponging.”

“Doobie and Flicker never did show up,” Davey says.

“The peripatetic Doobie and Flicker,” I say, jumping on the rare chance to insert ‘peripatetic’ into a conversation.

“Wow, nice word,” Davey says. In our family, sarcasm is the mother tongue.

“Yeah, and I remember how pissed off you were,” I say to Mother. Davey just laughs. Whatever happened to her sister Doobie and Doobie’s husband Flicker that night is lost in the mists—the freezing rain—of history; never satisfactorily explained, never resolved. Nobody ever asked, nobody ever explained. Like everything else, we all just acted as if nothing had happened and trudged on. It was a tradition that had been passed down through generations. They died a few years later off the coast of Mexico, marlin fishing. Apparently everyone on board was loaded—’knee-walking drunk’ was how Flicker’s ancient mother put it—when they capsized.

“They always lived like the rules didn’t apply to them. They were terribly reckless.” she says, “And, just to set the record straight, I wasn’t ’pissed off’ so much as disappointed.”

Davey laughs again, “‘Disappointed?’ Hell, you didn’t speak to them for a couple of years after that.” He is always brutally honest with her, the one who calls her on her bullshit, never giving her an inch, ever since he was little.

“Yes, I never got the chance to reconcile with her,” she says, “And I would’ve too.”

Davey and I exchange glances that say, ‘Yeah, right.’

“It was all so long ago,” she says, sighing “I don’t understand why we always have to come back to it. Every Christmas it’s the same Goddammed thing.” She lights her last Kent of the evening and shakes the match out.

Davey says, “You’re right, ‘the holidays are hard on everybody.’”

Byron Spooner has recently retired after twenty-one years as the Literary Director of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library where he produced literary events including a weekly poetry series with San Francisco Poet Laureate Emeritus Jack Hirschman. He founded and edited of The Readers Review, the Friends’ literary blog, where he wrote about books, music, film and bookselling. With his wife, writer Judith Ayn Bernhard, Byron co-edited Arcana: A Festschrift for Jack Hirschman (Andover Street Archives Press, 2014). His writing has been published in the San Francisco Examiner, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Autobiography and Isis. He has written introductions to several anthologies published by FSFPL. His short story, A Book for Christmas was published by Red Berry Editions in 2011. Byron has served on the San Francisco Poet Laureate Nominating Committee and the One City, One Book Selection Committee of the SFPL, on the Board of Litquake, and the Advisory Board of the Beat Museum.

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Chinchillas

December 11, 2020

By Con Chapman

Ray was chief of police and Sue Ellen was his wife; Duane was their only son and Sandra their only daughter.  When he was younger Duane had learned how to keep himself company while his dad worked for long stretches of time.  He took up hobbies that didn’t require a playmate, such as coin collecting and building model cars, which he pursued while he waited for his dad’s day off.  When that day came, Duane hoped they could play catch or, better yet, that his dad would pitch to him.  If the latter was the case, they would drive over to Veterans Park and his dad, in his undershirt and smoking a cigar, would throw batting practice until his right shoulder was stiff.  Those were the best days, but there weren’t that many of them.

When Duane became a teenager, his mother worried that he wasn’t social enough and encouraged him to join a club at school or go out for a sport so that he’d meet new people and make some friends.  Duane said no, he was fine.

“You oughta get a job, you’re old enough,” his dad said, but Duane had a different idea.

“There’s an ad in Model Car Science where you can send away and learn how to raise chinchillas in your basement.  I’d like to try that.”

His mother didn’t like the idea of a bunch of rodents in the house, even if they were locked in cages.

“We never go down there anymore,” Ray said in support of the boy’s idea.

“Maybe you don’t.  I have to do laundry every day.”

“We could move the washer up into the room off the kitchen.”

It had been one of Sue Ellen’s hopes for a long time that they could eventually afford to move the laundry upstairs so she wouldn’t have to walk up and down the basement steps everyday, so she agreed that Duane could turn the basement into his chinchilla farm.

Duane sent off the money to the address in the ad, which read “RAISE CHINCHILLAS AS A HOBBY. Fabulous profits. Small space in your basement, garage, or extra room is all you need.”  Two weeks later he received a male and a female in a cardboard box with airholes in the sides, and put them in the pen he had built in the basement.

“I figure I can keep up with them,” Duane said when his dad would come down into the basement to see how he was doing with the cages.  “I can swing a hammer pretty good,” and his dad thought, yes he can, unlike some of the guys he had worked with when he was a line manager out at the recreational vehicle plant before he became chief of police.  He had to let a lot of them go after a week or two.

Sandra didn’t like the smell from the very first.  She complained to her mother that she couldn’t have friends over for cheerleaders’ practice or yearbook meetings.  “It stinks up the whole house,” she complained, and her mother had to agree, it certainly didn’t stop at the basement door.

“Maybe he could open up the windows down there,” Ray would say when his schedule gave him a chance to have dinner with Sue Ellen.

“They’re little basement windows.  I don’t think that’s going to get the smell out of there.”

“Then he just needs to clean the cages more often.”

“You talk to him.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s down there now.”

Ray went down the stairs and found Duane building cages.  “Hey there,” he said.

“Hey,” Duane answered.

“How’s it going?” his dad asked.

“Pretty good.  I’m up to 12.”

“Wow—that’s great.”  He didn’t know whether it was good, bad or indifferent.

“I want to get up to 200.”

“And then what?”

“Sell ‘em and make a bunch of money.”

“Sure—that’d be terrific.”  He paused, then asked “What are you saving up for?”

“I want to buy more.”

Ray considered this for a moment.  “I don’t know that we’ve got that much room down here.”

“I can put a wall of cages in the furnace room, too,” Duane said.

“We could do that, I guess.”

“I need some more plywood and screen wire.  Can I charge it down at Cash Hardware?”

“How much is it gonna be?”

“I figger forty dollars.”

“All right.  But let’s set that as your limit.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t want you getting in over your head.”

“I understand.”

“Okay.”

His dad walked back upstairs and said he’d talked to Duane.

“And he understands?” his mother said.

“Yep,” his dad said, and settled down to read the paper.

Two weeks later there were nine more “chins,” and the new cages that Duane had built were full.

“It smells worse,” Sandra said to her mother.

“I know.”

“Can’t you just go down and yell at him?  I want to have Cindy and Donna Lee over for a slumber party Friday.”

“That’s fine.  I’ll talk to your father.”

When Ray got home Sue Ellen lit into him before he even took his jacket off, asking him what his deal was with Duane.

“We set a limit.  He was gonna build some more cages then sell them off.”

“Well take a whiff, would you?”

Ray sniffed and admitted that the smell couldn’t be ignored.

“I’ll talk to him,” he said.

He picked through the mail, looked out the window over the sink, and headed down the basement steps.

“Hello there,” he announced when he was about halfway down and could see under the basement ceiling.

“Hi,” Duane called back as he continued hammering.

“What’s the update?”

“I’ve got 28, and I’m making a maternity cage to keep the males out after the babies are born.”

“Why do you do that?”

“Otherwise the males get the females pregnant again and wear ‘em out.”

“Oh.”  Your mother would appreciate that, he thought, but now wasn’t the time to tell her an amusing anecdote about the sex life of chinchillas.  “So who you gonna sell these things to?”

“I sent away for a list of places.”

Ray was silent; that didn’t sound too promising.  “Are they pet stores or what?”

“I don’t know—I don’t have the list yet.”

“Well, you’d better get busy on it.  The idea was you were gonna sell ‘em.”

“I know.”

Ray went back upstairs.  He knew he’d have to start pushing harder, but he felt guilty that the chinchillas were all Duane had.  Ray decided he’d do some research on his own.  The town library was only two blocks from the police station.  Maybe he’d walk over there on his lunch hour—the exercise would do him good.

The next day he went over to the Carnegie Library and asked the librarian for some materials on chinchillas.  She picked a few books out of the pets section, showed him the Index to Periodical Literature, then showed him how to do a search on the computer.  To get him started, she typed “chinchilla” into a little white slot on the screen, then clicked on a green “go” button, and a list popped up.  Ray said thanks to the woman, put his reading glasses on and went to work.

It didn’t take him long to figure out that Duane had been duped.  The first article he read was by a state agency in Minnesota that warned people about buying animals to raise for a profit.  The attorney general got a cease and desist against one company, and they had to pay a pretty big fine.

So Duane was never going to be able to sell his chinchillas, and Ray would have to come up with a way out of the mess Duane had got himself into.  He knew better than to try and press charges against the company that sold the animals; it wasn’t like a breaking and entering case, where the guy was in jail and all he had was a court-appointed lawyer for free.  He checked–the company was a long way away, and would have lawyers they paid for.  They would wear Ray down, and he didn’t need that at this point in his life.

When he got home that night Ray told Duane he needed to talk to him, upstairs in his room.  He sat down in Duane’s desk chair and Duane sat on his bed.

“I did a little research on chinchillas today, which you probably shoulda done before you got started.”

Duane just sat there, taking it in.

“You’re never going to be able to sell those things.  I checked into it today.”

“Dad I can sell them . . .”

“I went to the library and read up on ‘em.  It’s a scam.”

“A what?” Duane asked.

“They take your money but they don’t come through on their promises.”

“What promises?”

“You’re not going to be able to sell them for a lot of money.”

Duane was silent.  “I don’t need to sell them.  I’d just as soon keep them.”

“We can’t keep thirty critters in the basement.  They’ll eat us out of house and home.  Plus they’re breeding all the time.”

“I’ll get a job.”

“You should be saving your money for college, not to feed a bunch of rodents.”

Duane said nothing for a moment.

“I’ll work with you to get rid of ‘em,” Ray said.  “I don’t know how the hell we’re gonna do it, but we’ll figure out something.”  Ray got up and as he moved past Duane into the hall, patted him on the shoulder and said “Live and learn, son—live and learn.”

Ray didn’t see it but Duane started crying once he was gone.  Duane felt bad that he was crying—he was too old and his dad hadn’t yelled at him.  He didn’t do anything dramatic, like throwing himself on his pillow or slamming his door shut, but he couldn’t stop crying, and it showed on his face, so he couldn’t deny it when Sandra walked out of her room, stopped, and asked why he was crying.

“None of your business,” he said.

“Dad told you to get rid of those stupid rats, didn’t he?”

“They’re not rats.”

“I told you so.”

“You didn’t tell me anything.”

“I told you to get rid of them—same difference,” Sandra said as she walked off.

Duane got on his computer after he had calmed down and started searching for people who would buy chinchillas.  After ten minutes he gave up and began to write down the addresses of places that would adopt them.  He didn’t know what he was going to do if he had any left over; maybe he could sell them at school.

He decided to take a card table to school and set it up in the cafeteria at noon time for a week.  One girl was interested—she took the chin out of its portable cage and held it up close to her face—but the next day she told Duane her mother wouldn’t let her.  There was one kid dressed all in black who said he might be interested, but Duane didn’t want him to have one—he thought he’d kill it for fun.

By Friday the curiosity of Duane’s chinchilla enterprise had worn off and no one even stopped to talk to him.  When his dad got home he greeted Duane with a “Howdy, partner,” as if he was expecting to hear great news.  “How’d it go today?”

“Not so great.  Still didn’t sell any.”

Stay positive, his dad thought.  “Well, you might offer to give a few away, just to drum up some interest.  Lots of stores do that.”

“I don’t think it’s gonna help.  The kids go home and ask their parents and they say no.”

Ray had known for a while that it was going to end this way.  “Let’s go down in the cellar,” he said as he got up, and the boy went ahead of him.  Ray reached under the sink and took a trash bag out of the box and followed.

It would be a hard lesson to learn, but it was one he had to teach, he thought.

“We won’t do this all at once, but we’re gonna have to start getting rid of these little fellas,” he said.  “Empty out a couple of cages into this bag.”

Duane’s eyes misted up, but he did what he was told, lifting eight chins out of their cages one by one and dropping them into the bag.  When his dad said “That’s enough” they went upstairs and into the garage, where his dad took a spare brick, put it in the sack, tied the top in a knot and put it in the back of his pickup truck.

They drove in silence a few miles to a bridge over a man-made lake, out beyond where the houses ended.  Ray turned on his emergency flasher, stopped his truck, got out and walked around to Duane’s side.  “Get out,” he said as he pulled the trash bag over the side of the truck.

“Here—take this,” Ray said as he handed the bag to Duane.

Duane took the bag and held it in his hand.

“Drop it in.”

“Do I have to?”

“You brought ‘em into this world—you’re gonna have to put ‘em under.”

Duane took the bag and walked over to the rail.  He looked down into the brown-green water, felt the life within the bag, lifted it over the rail–and let it drop.

The bag hit the water with a softer sound than he expected, then sank out of sight as the brick pulled it down.  Duane watched it for a few seconds, then turned around and looked his dad in the eyes.

“Better get used to it,” his dad said.  “We got quite a few to go.”

They got in the car but before they could get started another truck pulled up beside them and the driver rolled down his passenger-side window.

“Hey Ray,” the driver yelled.  “Whatcha got there—a cat that needs an operation?”

“Hey Vern.  Naw–something more exotic.”

“What?”

“Chinchillas,” he replied, with an emphasis that made Duane sink down in his seat.

“Oh—can’t you make your wife a coat out of ‘em?”

“Naw—I’m no good at sewin’.  This here’s my boy, Duane.  He raised ‘em but we got too many now.”

“Oh—okay.  Well, I can’t use ‘em neither,” the driver said with a smile.  “See ya.”

“See ya,” Ray said as the man pulled away from them.

Ray turned the ignition, put the car in gear and, after checking his rear view mirror out of habit, drove off.

“We’ll come out here every night after I get off work until we’re rid of them,” Ray said.

“All of ‘em?” Duane asked.

“You can keep a couple of males if you want, but you better make sure ‘cause I don’t want no procreatin’ once we’re done.”

When they got home Ray went to the living room to watch the news and Duane went down into the basement.  He looked at the stacked cages, and counted the chins that remained—twenty of them.  He watched their little cheeks chewing away, and thought of them sinking into the water, which they never would have felt before.

He started at the top left-hand cage–unhooking the latch and opening the door.  He moved his hand to the right, undid the hook that secured the door, and continued until all of the cage doors were open.  He walked into the furnace room, banged the metal bolt of the bulkhead door to the right, and opened it up.  Some of the chins were out of their cages by now, scurrying around without any sense of which way to go.  He took them one by one and walked them up the steps to the back yard, where he put them down on the ground and watched as they ran off.

Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer, author most recently of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award from Hot Club de France. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and a number of literary magazines.

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Surfacing

December 4, 2020
wife

By Erin Jamieson

Lake Victoria, it is said, is what sustains life in Uganda.  The second largest freshwater lake in the world, it breeds the White Nile and the Katonga River. Transport cargos and ferries carry goods and passengers. Water is harnessed for electricity. Fisheries are established along the edges.

And yet, we cannot call it our own. The lake seeps into both Kenya and Tanzania. As much as we’d like to think so, it belongs to us no more than it belongs to them.

* * *

“So you are concerned with intimacy.”

My wife sits in an armchair beside me, stiff as stone. Her eyes do not meet mine when she answers.

“Yes.”

The doctor shifts in his chair. He is a balding man of maybe fifty or sixty, with narrow eyes the color of flint. “And what are your concerns, specifically? Is it frequency?”

My wife’s cheeks flush; we do not talk about such things, not in public or private. “We don’t at all anymore,” She whispers.

The doctor turns to me. “Has your wife expressed a reduced desire—“

“Not me,” She interrupts. He raises his eyebrows. It is rare for a woman to interrupt. She bends her head, humbled, “I mean, he does not want to. When I….he never…..”

“This is true?”

I stare at the doctor. On the wall behind him, a clock ticks like a heartbeat. I wish my wife would look at me, but I do not blame her. And the things I need to say I cannot.

“Yes. It’s true.”

* * *

Kampala is a haven in a world of chaos. Where once bombs shattered the earth, it is respite for the homeless. Day in and day out, Congolese refugees poor in like ants. We watch as tents rise across the outskirts of the capital. Desperate mothers and children with dirt stained cheeks and fathers whose eyes are clouded.

We came here because of my wife. She insists this is the only place we will be heard. Here, even though she is a woman, she can speak of such things. There a hospital instead of practices with thatched roofs. Here, there are therapists, they say, that can help more than traditional medicine.

What she doesn’t know is that I belong here. That even though we still have our home, I am every bit the refugee as the rest of them.

* * *

“Do you find yourself unsatisfied with your wife?”

I stare out the window, at the crystal blue sky. “My wife is beautiful,” I say.

The man clears his throat. “I understand you were in Congo.”

“I was studying there,” I say.

“Studying……”

“I am a professor at Makerere,” I explain. “My wife and I live just south of here. “

“I see.” He studies me. “You were taken by the rebels?”

I twist my hands in my lap. “I was…mistaken for a spy.”

“Is it possible the experience as prisoner has made it more difficult to be a lover?”

I glance up at him and see someone else. I see men without faces, whose breath smells of dust and sweat. I feel hands made of leather, forcing me still.

But I am a man. A man is able to fight, when he needs to. When he feels weak, he never shows it. A man endures pain as a woman does when she bears a child.

“No,” I say, “I don’t see how.”

* * *

My wife is a magician; though we have not always had money, she can always find ways to fill our plate, to pay our dues. Today she cooks matoke on an open wood fire. The banana peels form cocoons around the bowls of shredded chicken, cabbage and tomatoes, which she will make into a stew.

“It smells wonderful.”

Silently, she starts a kettle of water to boil. The steam rises in the air like a phantom. I let he finish, and when I join her at the table, the smell and warmth of the food makes me feel as if I might vomit.

“Do you know what they are saying? The women I see in the markets, the streets? They are talking about me. How my own husband does not desire me.”

I swallow a spoonful of the stew. It scorches my tongue, and maybe that is best, because my words no longer have any power.

“You don’t spend time with me. You don’t eat my food. Am I a bad wife?”

Her eyes are glistening with tears, and I know she is picturing the same thing I am; the son we buried three years ago whose skin was tinged blue and his head the size of my palm.

Then, we’d been told that God had other plans. But it was a burden my wife carried, to have her femininity questioned.  To feel the stares of women who’d been blessed with homes of seven, eight, nine children.

What I want to say is that I am much less a man than she is a woman. That, now, I know that probably was my fault, too.

And now. Now I do not know if we will have any children, ever.

It is the greatest shame, the greatest punishment anyone can imagine. And I have given it to the woman I love, the woman I labored for to produce a dowry of five handsome cows.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Her eyes flash. “I wish that were enough.”

* * *

I change my pants three times before we leave for the appointment. The pain is almost unbearable today, but worse is what it reminds me of. The past three weeks I have hidden my soiled clothes, washed them by hand at night while my wife sleeps. That way, I can spare her from seeing the stains.

“We’re late,” My wife complains as we walk in. She strides beside me, self-consciously adjusting the collar on her dress. Since I became a professor, we have begun to dress the part, but I think we both miss the traditional dress. Western clothing is strange, stifling.

The doctor greets us and smiles. “So good to see you. Sit.” He folds his hands in his lap. “How has this week been?”

The room fills with silence. The air is suddenly too thick.

“I see.” He ruffles through the pages of a notepad. “If you don’t mind, I think it would be beneficial to talk to the two of you separately. “ He looks at me. “Is this comfortable for you?”

No good husband would leave his wife alone with another man—even if he is a doctor. A wife is sacred, treasured. Even more so for a man who only has one.

“Of course,” I say, when what I really mean is, I’m sorry.

* * *

“Now that we’re alone, is there anything you’d like to say?”

No.

“It would help me to know everything. Is there anything you haven’t told your wife?”

I think of my wife, her wide chestnut eyes, the dimples on her cheeks. “There is something,” I say.

The doctor leans forward in his chair. “Another woman?”

I shake my head. “She is the only one for me. It has always been that way.”

“There’s no shame—“

“It was…something….that happened to me.”

He studies me. I can count the number of breaths I take. “Tell me,” He says.

And when I speak, I already know that I am falling. Already, it is too late.

* * *

We were told to march. We were not told where we were headed, and we did not dare ask. We started in the chill of the morning and continued past sunset. By the fifth day, most of the men’s’ feet were bloodied, the soles of their shoes peeling off.

When we finally stopped, we were ordered to help build fires. We gathered in groups warming our hands as the rebels roasted meat and ate stale crackers. We were offered none, even though our stomachs were empty and our heads light.

The rebels placed us in groups. Mine was taken over a group of trees nestling the camp.

A rebel walked around us in a circle, a rifle strapped over his back. “Bloody spies,” He spat. “Do you know what we do to spies? Show them the same courtesy they’d shown us.” He smiled and looked at us, one by one. I lowered my gaze. “Drop your clothes.”

It was unthinkable. Stripping  a man of his clothes was taking his dignity. One man—the smallest of all of us, with squirrely eyes and breath that smelled of despair—dropped his britches quietly. The rest of us stilled.

“Do you need some convincing?” The barrel of the rifle, suddenly, was shoved into the side of my head. “Go on, take them off, or I shoot.”

Shaking, I dropped my pants. The others followed suit.

I looked up into the sky, where the dusk had fallen. The sun was the yolk of an egg, stretching across the horizon. My throat burned. What would I tell my wife, my friends, my coworkers?

I was thrust forward to the ground. I spat up dirt, craning my neck, but a hand held me down. I could hear laughter as my undergarments were torn away. A chill ran up and down my spine.

The rebels were singing witch doctor songs.

We lived on a diet of two bananas a day. Two bananas, and I don’t think any of us could have stomached anything more.

* * *

There is a beat of silence, and it is shocking to find myself back in the tiny room with the cozy armchair.  The doctor studies me for a minute.

“How did you come home?”

“There was….a skirmish among the officers. They were arguing about who would get the last of their supply of coffee. One of us…took a chance, reached for one of the guns. Shots went off….some died, some escaped.”

“So you escaped.”

“I guess I was lucky,” I say, not believing my own words.

“Yes.”

I shift my position in my seat. It feels as if I am sitting on thorns. I wait for him to ask how this has affected me, what it was like. How I survived. Instead he shakes his head.

“Have you told your wife?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Then I suggest you do.”

I swallow. “What do I tell her? That her husband is a weak man?”

The doctor doesn’t deny this. Instead he stands, and without looking at me, ushers me to the door. “Tell her the truth,” He says.

* * *

My wife is resting when I enter. She lifts her head, her dark hair a curtain around her face. “You’re home sooner that I expected,” She says, standing.

“Aye,” I say.

“Well?”

I meet her eyes. “Kabirinage. My love.”

“What is it?”

I step closer to her. Our faces are inches apart, and I can smell her scent: like sweet clover and freshly fallen rain. I curl my hands into fists at my sides, telling myself I must not touch her.

“I am sorry,” I begin. “I am so sorry.”

“You have decided to take another wife?”

I shake my head no. It is not in our religion to do this. I know many men do, but we were both raised Protestant. We do not believe in polygamy.

“You should know why,” I say. “Something happened to me.”

If she is surprised, she does not express it. She waits patiently.

“I was taken prisoner,” I begin.

“I know this.”

“But you don’t know everything,” I say.

“Tell me, then.”

And so I do the only thing I can; I do what the doctor proposed and have known all along I must do.

I speak, and plant the bitter seeds of truth.

* * *

When the police come, I only feel numb. It is a familiar numbness, the same numbness that came to me after nights of being compromised. It begins in my legs and arms and makes its way to the vital regions—my heart, my chest. It seeps into my body like a serpent, like venom. But it is that venom that I need. I need it, so I will not have to feel or think.

I let the officer guide me by the hands. He asks me to state my name and I do, feeling as if I am shedding my skin. I will never be able to use my name again. I am one of the despised; I am the roaches that lay eggs in dirt covered homes.

Before I am escorted, my wife casts one last glance at me. For a minute I stare into her eyes, but what I see I do not know. Hate. Fear. Maybe pity. But mostly hate.

And I know. She hates me because her name, too, has been shamed. She hates me because she will forever be the wife of a man who is not a man at all.

* * *

When a man is raped, he is presumed to be homosexual.

Engaging in relations with another man, in Uganda, is a crime.

A crime, if convicted, that can sentence a man to a sentence of fourteen years.

Fourteen years. In fourteen years you can build a home, a family, a career, a life. In fourteen years, the love of your life can forget you. In fourteen years, your skin can collect so much grime you cannot recall what it appeared before. In fourteen years, you can forget who you are.

And yet I know it will not be long enough. I know that every minute of those fourteen years, should they come, will be filled with nightmares. I know every minute I will relive the physical and emotional agony of those nights when I was stripped into something less than a human.

Worse yet, I know those fourteen years I will dream of her.

And I will fester in the shame I have brought upon both of us.

* * *

The day is cool and crisp, the sky an icy blue so piercing it hurts to look at. On our way to the holding cell, we drive past Lake Victoria. I can see it in the distance, eerily still, with a flock of birds swooping down to wet their beaks. These birds will rest and then fly somewhere else. But they will come back. Life has a way of working out this way.

The vehicle breaks down and I am told I must walk. I do not mind. I can breathe in the air one last time. I can look at the water and pretend I am swimming beneath the surface. I watch as a young man fishes at the shore. His line is silent and still as the lake, and he looks about ready to leave when suddenly the line jerks.

Letting out a cry, he winds it in, revealing a fat fish, gasping. I wait for him to set it on the shore and gut it, but what he does surprises me. He takes the fish in his hands, letting it flail until it goes still. And then, gently, he releases it back into the water.

With a sputter of motion, the fish leaps back in, under the water, knowing if it has been given a new lease on life, it has no choice but to continue swimming and without glancing back.

Erin Jamison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her writing has been published in over fifty literary magazines, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She currently teaches English Composition at the University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash College and also works as a social media specialist.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Pay Me In Attention

November 27, 2020

By Francesca Louise Grossman

My eyes are too far apart. My skin isn’t rosy or olive, the two options on the online makeup matching quiz. My hair is mid-length and curly. Sometimes frizzy, but I can usually get that under control with some of the expensive hair gel I steal from my mom. My lips are thin. My eyebrows aren’t thick enough. My lashes are nubs. 

My thighs do not gap.

I stand in front of the mirror in my attic bedroom and look at myself. My mother says at sixteen this is the best I’ll ever look, so I should cherish it, but if she’s right I might as well shoot myself now. Thankfully she’s not right about most things. Except the hair gel. 

If only I were pretty. It’s such a lame thing to think, but I can’t help thinking it. If I were pretty, I would be able to walk down the halls in school without slouching. I would be able to raise my hand in class without worrying that my classmates will see my pocked face. I would be able to get my best friend to fall in love with me instead of treating me like a friend with benefits. 

But I’m not pretty. And I know that. And so does he.

I hear my phone buzz. I scan the room and zero in on a pile of sheets on the floor from when I kicked them off last night in the heat. Summer is so gross in New England, and my parents still haven’t put in central AC in our house. They say I can use a window unit if I want to go back down to my old room on the second floor, but I set up my stuff in the attic three months ago and no way I’m moving back downstairs. For now I will fry. 

It’s worth it to be two whole floors away from my parents. They aren’t terrible, but it’s too hard being an only child. Why they stopped at one is anyone’s guess because my mother’s suffocation is enough for at least three daughters.

I shake out the sheet and my phone bounces on my makeshift rug, a bunch of beach towels laid out on the floor because my mother said I was not to bring my shag rug from my old room up into the dusty unfinished attic. I scramble to pick it up. 

Where are you? It’s my best friend, Walter, the very same one with the benefits. We have to go to Annemarie’s party!!!! 

Last thing I want to do. I love hanging with Walter alone, just the two of us, but as soon as we’re around other people, he forgets I’m alive. 

When? 

Tonight!  

I’d so much rather just hang with Walter at home. 

Ugh, I text.

Shut up you’re coming

You’ll owe me 

The text lingers. 

Like a party would kill you, he adds.

It might 

Crystal

OK fine what time? 

9:30. i’ll come get u 

Fine

I throw the phone onto my bed, an old cot that my mother put up in the attic for when my cousins come for Christmas. It’s covered with some couch cushions from a springless loveseat that’s pushed in the corner.

 

I go back to the mirror, turning this way and that, trying to ignore the pimples that have ravaged my cheeks, squeezing my stomach to approximate flatness, trying to see myself as maybe a sixteen year old boy could see me if I could just look a little bit better. 

Maybe working out would help. Maybe not. 

 The truth is I actually don’t really care about most of the sixteen year old boys who might see me. I only care about one. I’m as cheesy as the 80’s movies my mom makes me watch with her when I’m sick and can’t refuse. I am desperately in love with Walter, and I have been all my life. It ripped my heart out when he told me he didn’t feel the same way about me.

It wasn’t long ago. A few weeks. I thought things were going well. I thought we were both on the same page. We had been hooking up for a couple of months, nothing major, making out in his room or my attic. He had his hand up my shirt. I was sitting on his lap. And then I made the mistake. 

He was kissing my neck, making his way up to my ear. His palm lay flat on my boob, like he was going to squeeze but was waiting for something. He stopped, took a breath and looked at me. For a minute neither of us spoke. Then he smiled, kissing my nose. 

“I love you,” I said. It slipped out. 

Walter coughed. In my face. He coughed in my face and I swear he laughed, just a little. 

“Crystal, you know what you mean to me,” he said. 

“What do I mean to you?” 

“Don’t do this, don’t screw with this, you’re my best friend.” 

“But that’s it,” I didn’t want to say it, but I couldn’t help myself. He was still so close to my face, his hand was still up my shirt. I could feel myself starting to sweat. 

“I don’t want to ruin what we have,” he said. 

“Which is what?”

Walter took his hand from my chest and scooted up to the top of the bed. He ran that very same hand through his hair and looked at the ceiling. 

“I’m sorry Crystal, I just don’t feel that way about you.” 

I should have been mad. I should have yelled at him for taking advantage of the situation, told him I wasn’t an object he could play with. I should have thrown him out. But this wasn’t just some guy. This was Walter. He was my very favorite person in the world, my best friend. And he hadn’t promised me anything. 

“OK Walter,” I said. 

He took my hand. “I’m sorry.” 

Me too. I thought, but this time I kept my mouth shut.

Later that night, after Walter had gone home, I lay in my cot staring at the ceiling. What would I have to do to get Walter to feel the way I did? What would it take to make him see me like that? How could I make a change?

 

That was weeks ago, but I feel the same. Rejected. The next morning, I do my face for school. I put as much foundation on as I can, slathering concealer over the hot red bumps that cover my cheeks. I line my lips with a brownish mauve, dabbing a little gloss in the center as the YouTubers have taught me. I line my eyes in black flicking it out a little from the corner of each eye. I brush on mascara and powder my whole face. Hopefully everything won’t melt off in the heat. I look ok, passable.

I go downstairs to the kitchen, walk to the pot and pour myself a cup of coffee. 

“Morning Hun,” my mom says, coming over to hug me. I don’t want to mess up my face so I pull away, something she misinterprets as me not wanting to be close to her. She thinks I hate her, which just makes me hate her. 

“When are you home today?” she asks. 

This question. If I answer it, she’ll be waiting for me, and get upset if I’m “late.” If I don’t, she’ll think I’m hiding something. 

“Text me later and I’ll tell you,” is as much as I can give her. I grab a banana from the bowl on the table, and make my way to the bus. 

 

About an hour later I’m in math. I touch the grooves on the old wooden desk. Years of teenagers have scratched the surface with points from a pencil, a protractor, a ruler, a pen. Teachers can see if we’re writing something, but they never notice us etching, slowly and silently, at the pace of a math class.

I stare at my desk to avoid looking at Walter. Watching him from the back, out of the corner of my eye, even though I know he can’t see me, I notice him squirm. I can make out his waist between the wooden slab and metal rungs that keep the chair upright. I can see how the fabric of his faded tee shirt follows the curve of his sides, grazing him, almost meeting the waist of his jeans. That inch of skin. It is so pale, and so smooth, I can imagine, without much effort, how it might feel, how it might taste.

Today Mr. Parker is talking about sines and cosines in the faint background, but my thoughts are far away from anything resembling Trig. I trace my gaze upward, landing on the back of Walter’s neck. His dark brown curls reach his earlobes and I wonder if they tickle him. I’m jealous of his hair for getting to be so close. 

The bell rings. Mr. Parker looks directly at me as he says, “We’ll have a quiz on this on Monday.” His look suggests he knows I wasn’t paying attention. I hide behind my hair, and

gather my graph paper, completely blank, following  the herd of sophomores out of the classroom. 

I squeeze past kids clogging the hallway, stumbling, and there he is. I tuck my hair behind my ear and smile. My heart beats too fast. My hands get too sweaty. This is my best friend. I know him. He knows me. I don’t understand why my insides don’t know this. I have to be cool. 

“Hey Crys.” 

He waited for me. 

“Hey Walter,” I say, and I can’t help it, my stomach flutters. I have told myself a million times to let it go. But look at that hair, those eyes, his smooth cheeks. 

Truth is, I’m pretty sure he loves me too. He just won’t admit it. I’m the one he calls when he needs a pep talk. I’m the one he texts to go out when his parents are fighting. I’m the one who knows he’s afraid of the dark, and sleeps with the TV on. 

“Wanna walk me home?” he asks.

My pulse speeds and I nod, my voice failing me. This happens all the time. My brain forgets. It makes new realities that I believe. 

Walter hooks his arm through mine. It’s almost summer and our arms are bare. A shiver runs up to my shoulder from where our skin touches. 

Walter leads me to the big double doors that go out behind the high school. His house is on the far side. We walk slowly, making our way to the other side of the wide set of fields, where the younger kids have their soccer games and the JV girls play field hockey in the fall. 

Walter is telling me things like the party is going to be epic, they should make a pact to drink only two beers so they don’t get out of control, should he wear jeans or shorts? but it’s the thick arm hair in the crease of his elbow that I’m focused on, so unlike my own smooth crease it feels almost pornographic. 

 

When we get to the edge of the first field, Walter pulls me towards a large oak, one side covered in a florescent green moss. He leans me up against it, taking me by the hips. Why does he do this? Doesn’t he know what this does to me? 

One of the many problems with the situation is that Walter is more than willing to fool around in secret. This should infuriate me; and I sort of wish it did, but I let it happen because, in a way, it thrills me. If we hook up in secret then I’m a secret, and if I’m a secret I’m worth keeping secret. Right? Could that be a good thing? 

I wish that I believed that. I wish that were true. But I think Walter wants to hook up with me when we’re alone in the woods because he doesn’t want anyone to see us. That kind of secret is not the nice kind. 

Walter puts a palm on my shoulder. Our chests brush up against each other. Sparks fly up my leg and land between them, but I don’t flinch. I don’t want anything to stop what is about to happen. 

“Should I stop?” Walter asks, trailing one finger along my collar bone. 

“Yes, no, yes, stop,” I answer, even though I know in my mind this is all crazytown. Teenage boys are obsessed with sex, my mother would tell me, it doesn’t mean to them what it means to you. Be careful with your heart, Crystal. 

 

He looks at my mouth and I can’t look away. The small woods are quiet. I can barely hear school letting out through the trees. 

I’m aware of how I must seem to him at this moment, sweat pouring down my back, the sides of my head wet behind my ears. My foundation must be dripping down my face in globs. I am not a polished girl. I know girls like that, of course, who somehow never sweat, whose shirts are never wrinkled and whose hair is never mussed. Walter could have any of them. He could have anyone. But right now he’s here with me, and that has to count for something. I glance back at school. It seems so far away, a canopy of trees guarding us against all of the possible teenage eyes and gossiping mouths. 

A soccer ball comes bounding through the trees and hits Walter in the leg, dissolving our sun dappled moment. A freshman comes jogging to retrieve the ball and stops short when he sees us. He lifts his eyebrows, waits a beat and winks. Walter stands up and passes the ball back to him. “Nothing to see here,” he says. 

“Thanks, man,” the kid replies, chuckling to himself as he jogs back to the field.

The moment lost, we walk to Walter’s house, hand in hand to the basement entrance and into his room. His space is totally private, he took it over when his brother moved out. 

“You’re still up for hanging later tonight?” I ask him.

“Yes! Annemarie’s, it’ll be epic” he says, and he kisses me on the forehead. Epic. Awesome. Forehead. 

I take Walter’s hand. It’s so big, my fingers fit so nicely inside it. How does he not see how perfect this is? 

 I look at him. Walter dresses like a typical parking lot boy, low-slug jeans, tee shirts; in the winter a cracked leather jacket he inherited from his older brother. He wears faded black converse, low tops. When he smokes, which is not as often as people might think, he lifts his face towards the sky like he is praying. 

Walter walks like he carries a huge weight on his shoulders. He’s tall, almost six foot two, and he stoops, but not too much, just enough to remain mysterious. His hair falls delicately over his hazel eyes and I love nothing more than pushing the shock of it back off his forehead with the palm of my hand. Without the bangs in his face, Walter looks younger, fresh, maybe even innocent. His long black lashes are the envy of everyone, myself included. 

Once we toss our backpacks on the floor I pick up the book on his nightstand and finger through the pages. The cover of the book is ripped off so I can’t tell what it is. 

“What’s this?” I ask.

“It’s silly,” Walter says. 

“Is it for school?” I flop back on his bed, lying face up at the ceiling, turning the book over in my hands. 

“No.” He swipes it from me and tucks it in the back pocket of his jeans. The pages re-form their ripples, like they belong there. 

“What is it?” I lunge for him and Walter shimmies out of the way, arching his back away from me. I dive onto him and grab the book out of his pocket. The corner of his grey fitted sheet comes loose. 

“It’s embarrassing,” he says, flushed. “It’s nothing. It’s a book.”

“What book, asshole?” Does he think I’m not smart enough for it?

“It’s a bunch of short stories. Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Oh come on.” I roll my eyes, though secretly I’m swooning.

“It’s good, I promise,” he says. 

This is one of the bazillion things I love about Walter. His mushy side. Most people don’t see it. They see a brooding bad boy with a wallet chain. But I know the real him. The deep one. The one with the soft palms. The one who reads love stories. The one who pays attention. 

 

“Look, don’t make fun of me. It’s great. It’s not what it sounds like.” He smiles. 

I grab the book from his pocket. It’s ripped up on the edges. I put it up to my nose and smell it, the thin paper scent going directly to my head. It smells like the library and cardboard and laundry detergent. And Walter. 

I put the book softly down on the bed and look up. Walter sports a sheepish grin but I can tell he isn’t really that embarrassed. 

He reaches for me and pulls me towards him. Our bodies align front to front. 

“What do we talk about, then?” I ask. 

“When?”

“When we talk about love?” 

“Crystal, come on,” he says. 

We have talked about this. I know. But I know he must feel it too. He has to. And my mind gets all muddled up between what happens and what he says. 

“I know. Don’t worry,” I say, even though I don’t mean it. 

“OK.” 

My mother texts me:

What time will you be home?

What do you want for dinner?

Crystal?

Hello?

Call me. 

“Ugh, it’s my mom, I have to go,” I say and look around for my shoes. 

“You’re coming with me tonight, though, right?” Walter asks and I sigh. I know what will happen at this party. I will go with Walter, he will stand by me until Annemarie or one of her swan-like friends walks by with their long necks and big boobs and bouncy hair and then he will leave me in the dust. I’ll know no one else there, and I’ll have to call an Uber to get home before midnight. 

“Yeah, alright, I’ll go.” 

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I can make him see me like he sees the swans. I can try, can’t I?

After dinner with my parents, I run up to the bathroom and lock myself in. I shave my legs, I scrub my face, I wash my hair with coconut shampoo. I do my face, slick my hair with gel, pick my outfit, spray perfume. I avoid the mirror, hoping that my imagination of what I could look like will catapult me into a reality in which I do. I pull on my blue halter top, tuck my racerback bra in so the straps don’t show. I put on cutoffs, ones that barely cover my butt cheeks, and I tie a sweatshirt around my waist to cover the shorts until I’m outside. As I run down the stairs to meet Walter, I catch a glimpse of myself in the windowpane. I look good. Not Annemarie good, maybe not even her swans good, but good enough for me. 

 

Walter picks me up at 9pm, which my mother thinks is “an outrageous time to go out.” He beeps the horn. 

“Boys should ring the doorbell,” she says. 

“It’s just Walter,” I say. 

“He’s a boy, right?” My mother is typing on her laptop, but his eyebrows lift up and over the screen. “I know it’s not PC for me to say,” she starts, “but do you ever think of pulling back a little from Walter? Let him come to you?” 

“We’re just friends, Mom.”

“You never have to settle for being good enough Crystal, I hope you know that,” she says. 

“What does that mean?”

“It means, my love, that there is something to be gained from letting him wait a little, letting him want more.” 

I roll my eyes but there’s a part of me that thinks she’s probably right. I know the old he chases you in the playground because he likes you and you always want what you don’t have might be antiquated and unpopular unfeminist tropes but they’re sayings nonetheless. And there’s always some truth in a saying. “Maybe,” I say, I’ll give her a maybe. She smiles, appeased. 

 I let her kiss me on the top of the head. 

“Be safe,” she said. “Home by midnight.” 

I nod and run outside, jumping into Walter’s car before my mom can say anything else. 

“You look hot,” Walter says, and kisses me on the cheek. 

I smile. I have put myself together in the best way I know how. Something that looks effortless, but took me over an hour. 

Tonight. Maybe he will change his mind tonight. 

We get to the party, park around the corner. 

Walter looks at his phone, chuckles.

“What?” 

“Just Annemarie. Nothing,” he says. 

The air hisses out of my heart. 

We go in the back way into the kitchen, where kids are lounging on the counter and playing flip cup at the table. Walter heads to the keg, pumps and pours us a beer each, mostly foam. He hands me one. 

“Thanks,” I say, leaning into him. I want him to smell the coconut, a scent I know he loves. But I want more than that. I want him to lean in towards me and kiss me. I want him to take my hand, show this kitchen of kids that I mean something to him, that we mean something to each other. 

He does not.

Annemarie appears in the doorway, a golden fairy, one hand on the doorframe, a waterfall of bronze curls tumbling down her back. The room hushes just from her presence. Annemarie is beautiful, but it’s more than that. Her face is flawless, not one red bump, not one scar, and not one smear of cover up. She wears a low cut top, red and white polka dots. The outline of a black lace bra is clear underneath. Her shorts are low on her hips. Annemarie has a raspy, breathy voice and when she clears her throat we all wait to hear it. She always sounds like she was just laughing. Like she just finished something that took her breath away. A run, a dance party, a cigarette, sex. Somehow this evokes a sense of urgency, a sense that you should pay attention to her, before she’s off again. If I’m invisible, she’s the show.

I see the change in Walter. He is no longer easygoing. He straightens up, breathes more heavily. I can almost smell him start to sweat. 

“Hey Walter,” Annemarie breathes, and I know I’ve lost already. 

“Hey wassup,” Walter says, handing Annemarie his beer. 

“It’s new,” he says. “I’ll get another.”

“Thanks Babe,” she says, taking a sip.

“I’ll be back Crys,” Walter says and follows this breathy fairy into her backyard.  I know he will not be back. 

 It feels like my belly button bumps up against the back of my throat. I take a sip of the foam in my cup just to have something to do and it goes down the wrong tube. I cough and run to the sink, leaning my head to the faucet. I see my foundation streaming onto the plastic cups already discarded. How I could think I’d be able to keep Walter away from Annemarie is now completely beyond me. I can’t compete with someone like her. 

I put my cup on the table and wipe my chin.  I’ll walk home. I’ll be back way before midnight, and my mom will be thrilled. 

I leave through the screen door, letting it slam. 

I can see Walter and Annemarie sitting on the edge of her pool, their feet dangling into the glowing aqua water. He has a hand on the small of her back, she’s stretching, exposing her midsection. He splashes at her. She laughs in a trill. I don’t know how to trill like that. 

I’m a glutton for punishment. I know this, but I can’t look away. I sit down on the grass far enough away that they won’t see me. I stare.

Walter goes inside and gets them more beers; when he’s back they lean into each other and laugh. I see him touch the curve of her spine with one long finger. 

I lay back, I can’t watch. But I can’t leave either. I close my eyes, mortified that I thought even for a minute that Walter would choose me.

I’m not sure how it’s possible, but I fall asleep there in the grass, and don’t wake up until Walter kicks me lightly on the thigh. 

“Crystal,” he says, “Come on, it’s late,” his voice is slower than normal, like he’s dragging it through honey. 

I don’t move, and he lays down next to me. 

“Was it worth it?” I ask. 

“Annemarie?” 

“Obviously.” 

“Don’t do this,” Walter has turned so that he is facing the sky, one of his arms up and behind his head, the other resting on top of my hand in the grass. 

“Don’t,” I say, pulling away. “Someone might see us.” 

Walter sighs. 

I want to be mad. I want to shove his hand away, get up, walk home like I planned. But I can’t be mad, I can’t move. I know that I’m not his girlfriend. I know the deal. 

“I think I can hear your heartbeat,” I say. 

“Oh weird, I think I can hear yours too,” he says. “Do hearts beat louder when you drink beer?” 

I laugh, turn towards him. 

I let him choose. He could easily turn away. Or he could scooch his way up and let me listen to his heart. Or he could scooch down just a little bit and face my face. 

Our heartbeats amplify while I wait. Maybe it’s just mine. The crickets buzz and the grass is wet on my side and the beer is stale in my mouth. 

Walter touches his lips to mine, gently at first. I don’t react and he kisses me harder, pulling my face toward his with his hands. He parts my lips and kisses me more deeply. As he finds my tongue, I push him softly away, our mouths staying pressed together as our bodies part, holding on. 

“Wow,” Walter says. All I can do is nod in agreement. 

Walter places a hand on the underside of my chin. Right before our lips touch again, I feel a trickle of sweat roll down the side of my face. I pray it doesn’t end up in his mouth. If it does he doesn’t say anything. He just kisses me more. Walter’s lips are cool. And soft. They taste like ocean water mixed with malty beer and just a little bit of honey. 

I know he is doing this because he’s drunk. I know he probably kissed Annemarie this same way just a few minutes ago. I know she’s the honey I taste. I know that on Monday I will still just be the best friend, and his guy friends will be asking what it was like to be with Annemarie on Friday night. I know that I should stand up for myself, tell him he needs to choose, that this isn’t fair.  Tell him I have to protect my heart. 

 

But I don’t do any of those things. I kiss him back. I pretend that this moment is all the moments. I pray someone will see us, so that our whatever this is will be out in the world. If it is out in the world then it’s real. I imagine myself with long honey hair and a see through tee shirt.I imagine the choices I might have. We sometimes have to live in the moment in front of us. We sometimes accept second place because it is so much better than losing everything. 

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest Station, Ed Week, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, and The Huffington Post among others. She runs writing retreats and workshops internationally, and leads an annual intensive workshop at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and a Doctorate from Harvard University in Education. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband and two children and is currently working on a memoir and a novel.

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November 20, 2020

By Cameron L. Mitchell

She didn’t know he was such a troubled sleeper until after they moved in together.  He’d had a problem with sleepwalking for as long as he could remember, he said.  Even on the best of nights, he tossed and turned.  She slept like a rock, on the other hand, drifting off almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.  They had other differences, of course, like any other couple, but they felt hopeful, like they could overcome anything.  Before long, she couldn’t imagine her life without him, though she worried about the sleepwalking issue when he brought it up.  He made light of it, but there was an edge to his voice she didn’t trust.

At first, the incidents seemed minor, occurring only occasionally.  She’d wake alone in the early morning, figuring he was in the bathroom.  Instead, she found him asleep on the couch, and he looked surprised when she finally woke him – and unable to recall how he got there.  Another night, the blaring sound of the television woke her, hours before dawn.  She walked into the living room to find him kneeling before the screen like a child mesmerized by his favorite cartoon.  But his eyes were closed and his face was blank; she found it unsettling, the way he was clearly asleep, sitting up like that, his face set aglow by the light of the screen.  She switched the TV off but didn’t try waking him, having heard it was dangerous to disturb someone in the midst of a sleepwalking episode.  Carefully, she nudged him down to the floor, taking a pillow from the couch for his head.  The next morning, he’d returned to his place beside her in bed.  When she told him about the night before, he laughed, saying it was ok to wake him.  She would remember next time.

And there would be a next time.

There were also long periods when everything seemed fine.  He wasn’t much for spooning since he rarely stayed in the same position for long; yet, when their bodies intertwined as one, it was a treat – even if he later pushed her away, hard enough to wake her.  Sorry, he would say the next morning with that guilty look upon his face that made her think of him as a child caught doing something wrong.  It was that look of unyielding innocence that made her love him.  She loved so many things about him.  The way he quickly averted his gaze and blushed when she caught him staring at her from across the room.  The way he made her feel like more than the sum of her parts, never less.  The way he leaned on her, the way he needed her.  The way she saw herself reflected in his wide, blue eyes, dotted with specks of green and brown – she could get lost inside his ocean of delicate colors.

But were there things she missed?  In bed one night, while gazing up at the ceiling, he said a funny thing.  Do you ever wish you could be someone else?

What do you mean?

I see people on the street, on the trains, and I imagine their lives, he continued.  Their past, the way I can’t see it on their faces, whether it’s good or bad.  They aren’t dragging it around like this big, heavy piece of luggage, you know? 

She thought about it for a moment.  Maybe falling in love is like being another person.

How?

Being able to love someone, to make room for them when you weren’t sure you could, she tried to explain.

He turned to her, smiling.  How’d I get so lucky?  He kissed her on the forehead.  Soon, they fell asleep – she fell asleep, anyway.  He struggled the way he always struggled.  She now wonders why she didn’t ask more questions to see if she could pry loose those secrets he held so close.  Things might have turned out differently if she’d tried harder.

The sleepwalking episodes came to feel like games of hide-and-seek.  He’d quietly disappear from bed, and then she’d search the apartment until she found him.  They laughed about it.  But as the incidents occurred more frequently, they also got stranger.  Despite sleeping so peacefully herself, she woke one night with a gasp, turning to find him gone.  It’s like her body sensed his absence and responded before her mind was able to catch up.  She found him in the bathroom, scrubbing the floor with his toothbrush.  He pulled away from her touch, mumbling in protest.  She gripped his face with both hands, urging him to stop.  No, he insisted.  Not until it’s done.  With more determination than she’d ever seen in him while awake, he continued scrubbing, getting down between each tile to clean the dirt away.  She eventually gave up, returning to bed without him.  The next morning, there he was by her side, smiling.  She told him about the scrubbing, and he laughed at the absurdity of it all.  They laughed together until it almost felt ok.    

Another time, she couldn’t find him anywhere.  Again, she woke with a start, keenly aware that the weight of his body beside her was gone.  Throughout their apartment she walked, calling his name.  He wasn’t standing in the dark living room corner like last time, nor was he sitting on the cold bathroom floor, scrubbing away.  When she pulled the shower curtain back, he wasn’t there either.  Back to the bedroom, she checked the closet, she checked under the bed – nothing, nowhere.  Roaming back and forth through the apartment, she started panicking.

And then a small sound came from the kitchen, a rustling that might have been a mouse beneath the sink.  She raced in and pulled the cabinet doors open.  There he was, crammed inside.  She yelled for him to wake up and started tugging at him when he wouldn’t.  She gripped his shoulders, yanking until she finally pulled him out.  He hit the floor with a heavy thud, waking immediately.  Again? he asked, startled.   

Again, she answered.

Huddled together on the floor, they soon broke into laughter, marveling over the fact that he’d somehow managed to fit himself inside such a small, cramped space.  She carefully checked him over, running her hands across his chest, his back, his arms – it didn’t seem like he’d gotten anything hazardous on him from all the cleaning products and insect sprays.  She found a few scratches on his back, but nothing else.  Still, he went off to shower, just in case.  She went back to bed.  She didn’t fall asleep again until he returned to his place beside her, his hair damp, his skin warm.  Even then, it took her much longer than usual.  She was beginning to understand what it felt like to be a troubled sleeper.

Not as troubled as him, of course.  With the sleepwalking episodes escalating, so were the nightmares that often accompanied them, though he claimed he couldn’t remember the dreams at all.  He said he’d never been able to remember his dreams, which struck her as odd.  She recalled her dreams in such vivid detail she sometimes wasn’t sure if something had really happened or if it had just been a dream.  This was made worse by the fact that her dreams were so dull.  If they were more outlandish, it’d be easier to distinguish them from reality.  But most of her dreams involved everyday events, like maneuvering through passengers while riding the train to work – or just being at work in general, warming her lunch up in the staff break room.  His dreams were different.  Dark and terrifying, they left him sweaty and shaking, but he could never recount anything beyond the vaguest of details.  Someone after me, he might say.  Or something from his childhood, a period of time he never spoke of, though she gathered clues here and there – something about a father who hit, something about a mother who hid.  She had her theories, but he never offered any confirmations or denials.    

The two of them laughed together less and less.  More sleepwalking, more nightmares, all occurring more frequently.  With each incident, it became clearer that something was happening.  Something big, she felt sure.  He seemed lost and only half-present most of the time, desperate to find something – solace, perhaps, or maybe just a good night of sleep.

You know me better than anyone, he said in bed one night, staring up at the ceiling like he could see something she couldn’t.  But what does that mean?  Does anyone ever really know someone else?  Can they see through all the bullshit, deep inside another person’s heart?   

He sounded angry.  His questions were big, and she didn’t have answers.  She didn’t think anyone would.

I wish you could know some things, he continued.  Things about me.

What things? she said, her voice cracking.

Nothing, he moaned, covering his face with both hands.  It’s no use.   

He was so frantic and upset.  She tried soothing him, but she feared this not knowing that he spoke of – she feared he was right.  There might be things they couldn’t overcome no matter how well they worked together.

As he got worse, so did her dreams.  They became nightmares, haunting her long after they ended, ruining her once peaceful slumber.  He appeared regularly, always at a distance.  In one dream, she was lost in some dark, cavernous place, dusty and devoid of life, the air thick and stifling.  All was deadly quiet.  When he appeared, she called out to him, but he turned away, fleeing.  She followed, stumbling over rocky, uneven trails that looped around, leading nowhere – leading back to where she started, again and again.  Until she rounded one corner and almost crashed into him.  He stood before her, staring at her with dark eyes she didn’t recognize.  He held his arm out, insisting she take a look – all across his forearm, there were cuts that opened up like little mouths crying out in pain.  He clenched his fist, pushing his arm closer, like he blamed her for the wounds.  But he would never do that in real life, when he assured her she was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

In the dream he shook with anger, opening his mouth and screaming in silence – sweat dripped across his brow, the veins at his temples throbbed with each beat of his racing heart.  She woke so startled it took a few moments to catch her breath.  This time he was there beside her, twitching around in his sleep.  She pushed back a thick strand of hair that was stuck to his sweaty forehead.  She checked his arms for new cuts but found none.  Only faded scars from the self-inflicted wounds from another time, long before they met.  He’d admitted that he cut himself during a particularly rough period right after college.  He said it was something he’d never do again, explaining it was never about wanting to end his life.  It was just a release – or did he say relief?

Just then, his hand reached out in the dark and grabbed her arm, gripping it hard enough to frighten her.  The next day she’d discover a ring of bruises.  She tried pulling away, she tried to wake him, but he held tight.  For a moment, she wondered if she was still lost in her nightmare.  With one more heave, she managed to escape his grasp, stumbling back.  He remained in place, eyes closed, arm out, his hand waiting to clutch her again.  She watched his fingers slowly open and close around nothing.    

Eventually she turned away, deciding it’d be better to sleep on the couch.  The next morning, that’s where he found her.  I think I owe you an apology, he said, bending down before her.

For what?

I don’t know.  He looked confused.  He averted his gaze, catching sight of her arm.  What happened?  Where’d you get those bruises?

I don’t know, she answered.  Did he know he was the one responsible for leaving her marked?  Was he apologizing for that?  Or was he apologizing for something else, like the way he’d behaved in her dream, blaming her for all his pain?

That was ridiculous, she told herself.  He probably felt guilty for driving her out of bed in the middle of the night.  Her dreams and nightmares weren’t some shared experience.  They belonged only to her.

Always waking to find him gone left her exhausted.  One night, she chased after him in yet another dream, though the setting was different this time.  He was on the other side of a green meadow surrounded by trees.  Between them, the tall grass gently swayed in the breeze.  Birds chirped in the distance, and a pleasant, sweet scent filled the air.  The greenery surrounding them was almost too green; it gave off a faint luminescent glow, subtle but mesmerizing.  The colors of this particular dreamscape had a depth unlike anything she could find in the real world.  Lush and alive, this place was so unlike the dusty landscape of her previous dreams that she thought it symbolized a breakthrough.  It felt like the answer to a question neither one of them knew how to ask.  He casually waved at her, just like he would in real life, happy to have spotted her.  Before turning around, he waved again, beckoning her forward.    

She followed but couldn’t quite catch up.  No matter how quickly she moved, a steady, even distance stretched between them.  Out of the meadow and into the woods, he led her up a hill towards a dark hole in the ground – a cave, its opening obstructed by large rocks.  He didn’t turn back but walked on, determined to discover whatever waited inside that deep black void.  He tried pushing one of the rocks out of the way, but it wouldn’t budge.  He shoved his arm and leg inside, trying to enter, but he couldn’t quite make his body fit.  Hanging there, half of him was no longer visible.  She wanted to scream for him to stop but found herself paralyzed, unable to move or utter a single word.  Darkness filled the sky as heavy drops of rain started to fall, pelting her face and arms.  The sudden downpour washed away the vibrant colors.  She lost sight of him as the world turned black.    

She snapped awake, convinced she still had work to do.  She had to stop him.  It came as no surprise when she looked over and saw he was missing yet again.  She pushed the sheet away and jumped out of bed, ready to turn the apartment upside down to find him.  But she tripped over something before making it out of the bedroom.  Turning around, she found him lying in the floor at the bottom of the bed, half his body burrowed beneath it.  She backed up to the wall near the door, slowly dropping down until she was sitting on the floor.  Unable to stop herself, she started laughing.  The wild, maniacal sound was loud enough to wake the dead, but he remained in place, sound asleep.  Her laughter quickly gave way to a bout of uncontrollable sobbing.  The hot, wet tears falling down her face released the immense pressure that had been building inside her head.  She calmed down, pulling herself off the floor to sit on the bed.  She stared down at his leg still sticking out and felt a sudden urge to kick him, hard.  That small flicker of rage disappeared before it could grow into something dangerous.  I love you, she whispered, no matter what you decide.        

The next morning, she woke to his smiling face, hovering over her.  I had the best dream last night.

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes.  What was it about?

His gaze shifted up towards the ceiling.  I don’t know, but it was good, he said in a light, airy voice.  Like I finally figured things out.

He offered no further explanation, and she didn’t feel the need to ask for more.  A few peaceful weeks drifted by without a single sleepwalking incident.  They traded places – he slept easily, she didn’t.  The dark circles left his eyes and reappeared beneath hers.  Each night, she found it harder to sleep.  She couldn’t relax, she couldn’t let her guard down for a second.  She wouldn’t allow herself to be lulled into a false sense of hope that their troubles were over.  She felt it coming, their day of reckoning; it lingered around every corner, poisoning the air she breathed with an unmistakable sense of doom.  She imagined toxic fumes rising from the depths of that cave in her dream.  That dark place was still calling out to him, even if he seemed happier than he’d ever been.  She knew better, so she kept watch over him, waiting.

And then it happened.  He disappeared.

She knew it as soon as she woke to the emptiness beside her.  When she’d fallen asleep, he’d been there, his presence a palpable thing – all she had to do was reach out and touch him.  She could rest her hand across his chest, feeling the way it moved up and down.  With the weight of his body against the mattress, she knew he was there without having to touch him.  It was an undeniable fact.  But his sudden absence was just as absolute.  This time, she knew he was gone.  She could feel it deep down, on a cellular level – she was alone in the apartment they shared.

Still, she searched for him, just to be sure, flipping every light on along the way.  First she looked under the bed and in the closet, then she started her walk through the apartment.  He wasn’t in any of the corners he’d been in before.  She didn’t find him sitting on the bathroom floor, nor did she find him hiding in the tub.  Nothing in the kitchen either, not even in the cramped space of the cupboard.  In the hallway closet, again, nothing.  She dragged out the small step ladder to check the storage space above the closet – it was large enough to fit a body, but she didn’t find him there either.  She’d done all this before, searching for him, except this time, there was no tremor in her heart, no secret rush that came with the anticipation of finding him at last.  This time, she knew she wouldn’t find him.  The search was largely perfunctory, yet she repeated it, checking every possible space, over and over again.  It was like doing load after load of laundry and expecting something other than clean clothes at the end of each cycle.  Actually, it was worse than that since her efforts yielded nothing at all.

She collapsed across the couch, wondering what to do.  Nothing came to mind.  Her mind, in fact, was totally blank.  After a few moments, she looked over at the hallway leading to the front door.  She leapt up, rushing over.  It was locked – even the chain lock had been latched into place.  She’d been in the habit of using it ever since his sleepwalking started getting worse.  She opened the door and peeked out, but the eerie silence of the hallway felt like a warning; at this late hour, the air was different.  She didn’t belong to the world out there, yet she took a few hesitant steps forward anyway.  The floor felt icy cold against her feet.  Where are you? she whispered, calling out his name.  She knew he wouldn’t answer, just as she knew he hadn’t left this way.  With a shudder, she backed up and shut the door, locking it.  Glancing over at the kitchen, a new thought struck her, one that had never occurred to her before: the fire escape.

She ran to the kitchen, stopping at the window.  It was covered by a retractable gate that couldn’t be opened without first removing the padlock.  She pulled open the drawer where they kept an assortment of odds and ends, looking for the key.  Frantically, she yanked the drawer out, spilling its contents across the floor – the sound of everything falling and clanging together was harsh and loud, destroying the uneasy silence.  The noise made her want to run through the apartment, shattering each light fixture with a hammer and screaming until someone answered.  Instead, she searched through the mess, finally finding the key.  She unlocked the padlock, removed it, and opened the gate.  As expected, the window was still locked.  Even if it hadn’t been, the fact that she found the key proved that he hadn’t left by way of the fire escape.  Though improbable, he could have climbed out the window, reaching through the gate to put the padlock back in place, but then he wouldn’t have also been able to lock the window from the outside.  And as far as she knew, there was only one key to the padlock, which she held in her hand.

She went through the apartment checking all the windows, just to be sure.  The one in the bathroom was too small to fit through.  One of the windows in the living room had bars over the outside, and it was locked anyway; the other one held the air conditioner.  In their bedroom was the last window – the last possible means of escape.  She found it unlocked, but the screen was still in place.  She pushed the window open, seeing if she could slide the screen up.  It wouldn’t budge.  They lived on the fifth floor of a walkup, so he couldn’t have leapt from the window and survived.  Besides, she would have heard him if he had gone out the bedroom window.   

Now she knew for sure.  Somehow, he’d found a way out that couldn’t be explained.    

She spent the rest of the night in a fugue-like state.  By morning, she saw that the mess in the kitchen had been cleaned up, though she didn’t remember doing it.  She called the police – eventually, she filed a missing person’s report, but no one seemed to take her seriously, especially when she insisted that he disappeared by unnatural means.  They told her people up and left all the time, that she must have been mistaken about the chain lock being in place when she woke that night.  Despite everything that had happened, she didn’t feel sad, exactly – she felt drained.  It would take a while to muster the energy for sad.

In a follow-up, the police asked if he was suicidal.  No, she answered in a quiet, dispassionate voice, remembering the scars along his arms, how they opened up and screamed at her in a dream from what felt like so long ago.  As far as she knew, he wasn’t suicidal, but, over the sleepless nights since his disappearance, she started doubting herself more and more.  Could the chain lock have been unlatched that night?  She held the image of it locked in place like a snapshot in her mind, but with the lack of sleep and growing anxiety, the picture became distorted.  Dreams seeped into reality, days were hardly discernable from night.  When she managed a few hours of sleep here and there, the one thing she couldn’t bear was the fact that he had gone missing from her dreams as well, which quickly became as empty as her reality.  After disappearing, he never made a single appearance in any of them.  She waited for him there on the other side, hoping he would give her a sign.

During the day, she carried on, though she couldn’t manage to leave the apartment.  They’d stopped calling from work.  Friends had stopped calling too.  There was no one left – no one but the delivery boys who brought her what she needed to survive.  One can order anything, she discovered.  She ordered cases of wine, guzzling entire bottles down at night as she stumbled though the apartment, talking to him.  Talking to no one.  She took pills to fall asleep at night and drank entire pots of coffee to wake up each morning, laughing at her new routine.  She didn’t have to leave the apartment at all, though she knew things couldn’t go on like this forever.  The only thing that kept her going was the need to find him.  There was a hunger in her belly, urging her on – like a deep, bottomless hole, it swallowed everything else.  She couldn’t resist, even if she wanted to.

She studied lucid dreaming online but couldn’t make it work.  She thought of sleepwalking and how that might lead her to him, but it wasn’t something you could just force yourself to do.  She thought of him all the time, longing for the way things once were, when she slept so easily and they laughed about the things they couldn’t control.  She spread out across the living room floor, letting her mind wander.  She pictured herself walking down a long, dark tunnel, musty and damp, going on for miles and miles, twisting this way and that; long after losing track of time – walking so far that time ceased to matter – she imagined that tunnel opening up at last, revealing a light so bright it was blinding, though its warmth was strong enough to set her free.

Alone in their apartment, she imagined all sorts of things.

Out of boredom, she took the step ladder and climbed into the storage space above the hallway closet, finding that it really was big enough to fit a body.  Her body.  She crammed herself inside, pulling the doors shut to welcome the darkness.  She waited in silence and isolation, hoping to slip away to that secret place where she could find him.  In minutes or hours, she fell asleep, floating along in the darkness that held her.  Sometime later, she woke with a mind so clear it seemed like a miracle.  She had her answer at last, so she kicked the doors open, letting in the faint light.  She crawled out of that space, ready to find him.  She’d go looking for that tunnel, and that tunnel would lead her to where she needed to be.  Never had she been more certain of anything.        

A night had passed in that dark space, so she had to wait for the day to fade again to get started.  Once evening arrived, she lined up the bottles of pills he’d collected.  There were natural remedies, prescribed medication, and over-the-counter sleeping aides.  He’d tried everything.  And so would she.    

It would take the deepest, longest sleep to find him.  She needed help getting there, so she took a handful of the pills and washed them down with a glass of wine.  She had to go further this time.  She had to go further than she’d ever gone before, because he was worth it.  Being together again was worth it.    

As she started nodding off, a shadow of movement flickered across the room.  Its shape looked familiar.  Though it disappeared in an instant, she smiled anyway, feeling perfectly content.  She knew he was nearby, waiting for her to follow.   

Cameron L. Mitchell is a queer writer who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Queer South Anthology, Literary Orphans, Gravel Literary Magazine, and a few other places. He lives in New York and works in archives at Columbia University. Find him on Twitter: @CameronLMitchel

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

AND HERE WE ARE AGAIN, DANGLING

November 6, 2020
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Hi! Jen, Angela and I are thrilled to welcome you to Fiction Fridays!  On the first and third Friday of each month, we will feature fiction, so take a break from all the chaos and read a story or two as you head into the weekend. You’ll be happy you did, we’re sure of it.   TGIFF!  –Francesca

By Francesca Louise Grossman

I sit crisscross applesauce on our shag rug, balancing a cup of cold coffee on my thigh. Emily, my two-year-old, is sitting next to me on the floor eating weeks-old Cheerios she unearthed from the couch. My first thought is thank God I don’t have to get up to get her breakfast. I know in my heart this is wrong, she deserves new Cheerios at least. But Emily woke up at 4:40am this morning and my limbs are lead. I have no more energy to give and it is only 9:30 am.  

But still. In many ways, this morning is a vacation. Until my husband and son return from their church camping trip, I am off my usual incessant duty. Emily I can handle, even with her ghastly wakeup times. She is sweet, calm, often docile. She’ll watch Dora or Wonder Pets and give me thirty minutes of peace. She contrasts so drastically from my son Ethan, who, at six, has been diagnosed with ADHD and simply can’t sit still. And she exists in deep contrast to my husband, Benjamin, who hasn’t been calm one day in the twenty years I have known him.

Aside from Emily’s chewing, the house is mercifully quiet. 

I lean my head back on the couch cushion. The wonders of motherhood include being able to sleep sitting up with your eyes slightly open. 

My phone buzzes and my awake-nap is interrupted. Of course. 

“Hello, Heather, hello?” The voice sounds vaguely familiar, but honestly it could be my mother. 

“We called you before but it went straight to voicemail,” the woman continues. 

Who is this? 

“I have called Benjamin’s cell phone a number of times,” she said. 

I think it is the church lady, the woman who is running the camping weekend. Oh lord, what has Benjamin done now? 

I look at the time again and realize they should be on the bus home by now.

“What’s the problem exactly?” I put my coffee on the coffee table and heave my body up onto the couch. 

“The problem, Heather…is that your husband and your son have not returned to camp, and we have been waiting over an hour. It seems they are…missing.”  

I laugh out loud at her delivery. “Is this like a murder mystery game or something?” 

I’m not kidding. An elaborate real life player game would be right up Benjamin’s alley. Driving everyone crazy would also be. 

I can’t see her but I swear I can hear her eyes rolling. 

“Maybe it’s the reception?” I say. “Maybe you could try calling him again?”

“The reception here is fine, Heather.” She is saying my name too many times. “I’m honestly not sure what to do, the bus has to leave. Benjamin knows this.”

The church lady is right. Benjamin knows that the church trip started on 10 am on Saturday and ends on 10am on Sunday after one night of camping in the woods. 

“A full 24 hours!” he had said to Ethan, trying to convey how exciting that was. “We’ll have so much fun!” 

I remember thinking, a 24 hour break from their frenetic energy, God IS Good. 

“Well you can’t leave them there.” I say. 

I try to remember what this woman looks like. She’s the family coordinator of the church, and in my memory, she looks exactly like she should. A little plump, wavy brown hair to her chin, glasses on a chain against her very ample bosom. High mom jeans. Keds. 

“Heather, we are not planning on leaving them here. We called the police.” 

“The police?” This seems aggressive to me. “I don’t think that’s necessary. They probably just wandered off.” 

The woman (maybe her name is Janice?) sighs and I understand. 

“He was drinking?” I ask.

At first she doesn’t say anything, but after a few moments she replies. “All of the adults had some wine and beer last night,” she says. “I didn’t partake.”

“Please don’t protect him,” I say, pinching the skin between my eyes. 

Now I see that things might be as bad as she suggests. He had promised. He had said he wouldn’t even bring anything to drink. 

My mind goes from annoyed to worried to livid. I’m sure he’s just sleeping somewhere, probably with Ethan curled up in his lap. How many times am I going to have to get Benjamin out of trouble? How many times am I going to have to come save him? 

But then my stomach sours. What if they aren’t just sleeping somewhere? What if something is actually wrong? 

My palms sweat and the back of my neck erupts in goosebumps. I fume and worry simultaneously. I know this feeling. This is the feeling of being married to Benjamin. 

 

Janice sighs again. “Well, I think Benjamin had quite a lot. He was singing well after the kids and most of the adults went into their tents. I had to poke my head out twice to shush him. No one saw him this morning. No one saw either of them.” 

“Dammit. Are the police there yet?” 

“On their way.” 

“OK…”

Emily has squirmed away from me, her two year old body wriggling in between the couch and the wall. She likes to do this when she’s nervous. She must hear the frustration in my voice. 

“So when will you be here?” Janice asks. 

“Be there?”

“Yes, I’m going to stay behind. The bus is going to take the rest of the families back to the city. You need to come here to talk to the police.” 

Of course. I hadn’t really thought it through, but of course. I have no doubt that by the time I drive the hour and a half to the campsite, Benjamin and Ethan will be sipping juice boxes and catching spiders, but clearly I can’t say no. 

“OK, I’ll be there.”

“Good.” 

I pull Emily from her slot and she reacts by bowing her back and screaming. My 4:40 am brain pulses in pain and I drag her to the kitchen to grab random snacks that I’ll throw at her as we drive into the low mountains outside of Boston. She’ll sleep most of the way. I’ll do my best not to. 

When we arrive, the rain has started, the world outside of the car blurry and surreal.  I hear dogs barking up the hill. Those can’t be…police dogs?

I unstrap Emily and hike her onto my hip. Benjamin, I think, what have you done? 

I run as well as I can with a toddler on my hip up the muddy hill towards the crowd. I almost barrel into a police officer who looks more like Smokey the Bear than anyone from Law and Order. 

“Hello Ma’am, I’m Officer Bugg. You’re the wife?” 

“The mother,” I say. “And the wife. Heather Marlow.”

“We’re doing the best we can. It’s raining, which makes things harder. We’ll find them.” 

“So you think this is serious? I mean…it’s really a problem? They’re like actually missing?” 

“That’s how it looks, yes.” 

My mind spins as I recalibrate my experience. My baby is missing. Ethan!

“What can I do?” I ask and Emily starts to whine, upset I yanked her from her dreams. 

“Well. A few things. Questions. Does this happen often?” Officer Bugg asks.

Which part? I think. The part where Benjamin drinks so much that he goes off to who knows where and comes back who knows when? Or the part where he takes Ethan with him? 

“No,” I answer.

“One other question…and I have to ask. How are things with you and your husband? Would there be any reason for him to take off with your son?”

The question smacks me across the face. Things with Benjamin have not been good. They have not been anything, if I’m honest, for quite a while. He drinks, I duck out of his way until he sobers up. He makes promises, like he will not drink on the church camping trip. He lies. I forgive him. There have been periods of our relationship when this happens. But it always straightens itself out. He gets sober. Sometimes for months and months. One time it was over a year. In those times we eat breakfast together, he makes the four of us eggs and pancakes. His long hair stays tucked behind his ears. He rubs my feet, thanks me for sticking with him, tells me how much he loves me. But lately we are in a slump. A bad patch. One that has me sniffing his coffee cups in the middle of the afternoon.

“We’re fine,” I lie. 

He would never hurt me on purpose. He would never take Ethan away from me. He would never do anything more than what he always does: punish himself for the sins he believes he can’t help but make. 

I put Emily down on the ground, even though it is muddy, and let her squish the wet earth in her fists. I see Janice a few yards away but I don’t move towards her. She glares at me with what feels like the wrath of God. My head pounds and the dogs bark louder. I close my eyes. 

Benjamin. 

It took him exactly one minute to win me over at an off-campus party in our college town in upstate New York. He strode across the room towards me and I pretended not to have been watching him. His gangly frame navigated the space with such elegance. I remember thinking, that man must be a dancer. He all but sashayed in front of me, his cheeks red, his hair sweaty, and handed me a beer. He tipped his bottle and his head in my direction. 

“Benjamin Marlow,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.” 

There was something about the way he said that, like he was truly pleased, along with the smile he offered through his green squinted eyes, that made me pay attention. We danced that night in a sea of sweaty friends of friends, Benjamin’s hand holding me by the small of my back, one of my arms resting on his shoulder, my head thrown back in endless laughter. 

When he asked me to get out of there, I went. His gaze ignited something in me, a do-good midwesterner with only two boyfriends in my past. I couldn’t get enough. I didn’t want to. I still don’t. 

But sometimes…

After we had been dating for about six months Benjamin told me he had given up cocaine and hard liquor the year before we met. We were lying in bed, polka dot sheets in a mess at our feet. 

“But you still drink,” I said.

“Beer.” 

“That doesn’t count?”

He smiled and shrugged. “Seems to be OK.” He turned over so we were both facing the ceiling. 

“What made you quit?” 

“I became stupid,” he said, and dove at me, covering my questions with his mouth. 

I later learned he had crashed his car into a storefront. He spent five months in jail, did community service for eighteen. 

“I never would have forgiven myself if I hurt someone,” he said, crying. 

“Or if you hurt yourself,” I said. 

He leaned over and kissed my head and I drowned in the heat of him.

Over the years Benjamin’s addiction has been another person in our relationship. It lives next to us, always leering, waiting for Benjamin to tip his head in its direction instead of mine. I do everything I can to keep it at bay, but I am not strong enough for both of us. Especially since we had children. I love him, but I can’t always love him enough to stop his pain.

People believe that loving an addict is wrong. That it’s important to let them go, fight their own demons, live with their own bad decisions. 

“Heather? Ms. Marlow?” 

It’s clear the detective is getting annoyed with me for drifting off into my mind. This is how I think—in tangents and circles, even in stressful times—but it doesn’t seem the moment to explain.

“Yes, sorry.” 

“The dog found something.” 

I turn to see a dog in a navy blue vest racing through the trees. I don’t think, I run after him. 

“Ms. Marlow!” I hear the detective yell at me, but I don’t stop. 

“Watch the baby!” I scream to him, and I look back for a second to see her trying to climb up his leg. 

I fly through the trees behind the dog. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, Ethan I say in my head to the beat of my feet. I slip and slide around in the muddy leaves on the forest floor. Somehow I stay upright and keep running. 

Abruptly, the dog stops. I slow down and watch him, as he sniffs at the bottom of a tree, one with a straight section of bark right at the bottom. They were here, I think. Benjamin would have led Ethan to rest here. This is a perfect resting tree. 

The dog sniffs more, takes off again. We go in the direction of the lake. 

We run to the edge of the water, the majesty of the foggy hills trying to make its way into my psyche, but all I can hear is the labored breathing of my mantra. Ethan…I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

The dog splashes into the water and I follow, quickly waist deep in the murk. I can’t see the bottom but it feels mushy and uneven under my boots. The rain pelts the lake water around me like tiny bullet holes. The dog swims in a circle. My brain starts to understand what it means that I am in the lake with a German Shepherd barking and police stampeding and my son and my husband are missing. 

I hear a wail from somewhere that feels like the core of the world, but I realize it’s from my stomach. I have abandoned anger and have landed in full blown terror. I start to swim, and I make it a few feet before my arms and legs give out. Someone grabs me from behind and I buckle. 

They drag me out of the lake. The dog stops barking. The air falls silent. 

“What does that mean….the dog…. did he find something?” I’m pleading with the officer who dragged me out, pulling on his jacket with two hands. Another officer is behind us holding Emily, muddy in his arms. I take her, bury my head in her hair. She smells like baby shampoo and sweat. Someone has wrapped a wool blanket around her, and now they lay one on my shoulders as well.

  “It doesn’t mean anything. It ran cold. The rain makes it hard,” the officer says. 

I squeeze my baby tighter and shut my eyes. In a million years I will never forgive Benjamin for this. I will never let him back into my house. And if the lord in heaven keeps Ethan alive, I’ll spend the rest of my life serving only him. 

I hug my daughter, as if squeezing her compensates for me allowing my son to go missing. 

“Mama,” I hear, and squeeze Emily. “I know you’re cold baby.” But I look at her, and she has fallen asleep on my shoulder. 

“Heather, we should go back, the dogs will keep going if they can…” Detective Bugg is talking, but I’m not listening. 

“Mama,” I hear it again. Quiet, a breeze of a word.

“Shh, wait, do you hear that?” I ask. I put a hand on the detective’s arm to quiet him. 

“Hear what?” 

I shift Emily to my other side and listen into the air. Are the trees mocking me? Am I starting to hallucinate? 

“Mama?” 

No, that’s real. I can hear that. It is not in my head. I turn, scanning the crooked forest. The rain blurs the trees in front of me, but the voice is clear. “Mama!”

A small square of yellow pokes out behind a pile of brush about fifty feet from us. Ethan? I stumble toward the yellow square and it moves, showing me a little more of a t-shirt I know well. I have washed this t-shirt a thousand times. 

“Ethan!” I scream and sprint towards the brush, Emilly bouncing against my shoulder. Ethan! He’s there, he’s alive. Oh thank God. I’m going to kill Benjamin. 

I skid into the wet leaves and hook myself around my baby boy, wet and shivering. I kiss his head and open my blanket, wrapping the three of us into our own world, as things should be. 

“Oh Ethan baby, I’m so happy to see you.” I hug him until he winces. I lighten up. 

“Honey where were you? Where’s Daddy?” 

“He saved me,” Ethan says. 

“Saved you from what?” 

Ethan is small, but not too small to explain things. 

“Saved you from what, baby?” I ask again. 

He starts one of those endless sentences little kids say. “There was a monster and it was chasing us last night through the forest and we came here and hid but I slipped and fell into the lake and he saved me from the lake.” 

Ethan can’t swim. Benjamin can’t swim much either. 

The officer comes up behind me, squats to our level.  

“Good to see you buddy. Let’s get you guys all warmed up and checked out,” he says, putting a hand on my back. 

“But what about my… he could be…” I scoop my baby boy into my arms and stand up, both of my children velcroed to my skin. 

“We’ll keep looking.” 

We walk back to the campsite very slowly because I carry both my children, Emily sleeping soundly, Ethan coughing lightly. 

“Ethan,” I ask again. “Where’s Daddy now?” 

 “Maybe he’s fighting the thing.”

It takes much longer to get back than it took to get there—the weight of the kids, the mud caked into my boots, and the fear. The fear that Benjamin is gone. 

I want to kick myself. I let my guard down. Maybe I just love him too much. The problem with loving someone who disappears all the time is not that they let you down, it’s that you let yourself down. Every single time you think it’s over, it has just begun. It doesn’t matter how healthy they become, how self-righteous, how strong. It doesn’t even matter if you believe them. It’s what it does to you to love something that isn’t true. That’s the hardest part. When you sit there with their broken pieces talking to your broken pieces. And here we are again, dangling. 

I exhale a breath I have apparently been holding.

When we get back to camp I lie my children down inside a makeshift tent the police have raised. The EMTs want to check Ethan, so I rouse him but he won’t let go of my hand. I lie down next to him.

“Ethan, where did Daddy go?” I ask him again.

He shrugs again. He doesn’t seem scared, just confused, and I realize that’s a better state for him to be in for the moment. 

One time I found Benjamin swaying next to a canyon on one of our hikes. 

“Step back you idiot!” I called. 

“What would I do without you?” he answered, backing up, but I swear I saw a little bit of wistfulness in his eyes.

It’s hard to think that the person you’re married to would rather be dead than be with you. 

I need to focus. He saved Ethan. I believe that. Was he thinking he was a superhero or a failure? Those are Benjamin’s only two modes. Did he jump in because Ethan was really in trouble? Or did he think he’d learn to swim like a fish in the time it took for him to hit the water? Like a chick can all of a sudden fly?

My children are sleeping again. 

“He’s in a bit of shock, and has a low grade fever, we’d like to watch him at the hospital,” the EMT says, picking Ethan up and laying him on a cot. 

As if from above I see myself nod, scoop up Emily, follow the gurney into the ambulance. “Where’s my husband? I ask the air, but no one answers. 

The trip down the mountain is fast in an ambulance. Ethan is fully awake now, excited by the speed. The EMT even blares the siren for him, and Ethan beams.

“Daddy will love this story,” he says. 

We get to the hospital and I fill out paperwork. Somehow my parents are there though I don’t remember calling them. They hug me and take Emily. 

“We’ll hold onto her tonight,” they say. 

I follow Ethan into an exam room. He’s still wet, and they give him a johnny to wear while they check him. He finds it hysterical that it is a dress with no butt. He tells me again how much Daddy is going to love this. 

I check my phone incessantly. Will they call me if they find his body? Will they come tell me in person at the hospital? How do these things work?  

I jump whenever anyone enters the room, sure it is an officer, delivering the fate of our new lives. 

They want to check Ethan internally. It was stormy, things were flying around in the water, just in case. They sedate him to do an MRI, they say that’s the best way to do it. As I watch my son go under, I see the face of his father fade away from me too. 

I sit outside the MRI room to wait for my son. My parents call to tell me Emily is fine, playing with the duplos they bought her, about to have supper. Someone comes up behind me, I can feel them standing there, waiting to tell me something. A doctor. A police officer.  If I don’t turn around, it will not be true. 

I turn around. 

Benjamin stands behind me, an arms length away, like he knows I might hit him if he comes any closer. 

“Heather,” he says. 

I look at him. His clothes are rumpled and off center, his hair is slick down on one side and standing up straight on the other. His face is creased, his eyes squinting. A familiar, musky smell of last night’s alcohol wafts off of him and straight into my nostrils. But it’s his hands I focus on. They are twisting a yellow tissue around one finger, cutting off the circulation, then letting it go, wrapping it around another finger, doing the same. I know this tic. This is the tic of my husband when he is right on that edge. He’s squeezing his fingers, but he’s imagining his throat. 

“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I don’t know what happened.”

The air feels so heavy. “Yes you do,” I say. 

Benjamin nods, rocking himself back and forth on his heels, nodding with his whole body, twisting the color out of his hand. 

“We were having fun. Things were fine. And then, he went in, and I went in and I don’t know.” 

My rage boils up and over and I push Benjamin with two hands against his chest. He falls easily, like he was being held up by reeds. 

“You DO know!” I scream. “You almost killed our kid, you piece of shit!” 

I look for somewhere to go but I’m waiting for Ethan to come out of the MRI, so I can’t go far. I walk to the other side of the room, sit on an orange plastic chair, cross my legs, folding myself into the smallest ball I can. 

“You’re right Heather,” Benjamin says. 

There’s no one else in the small room, and it’s as if his voice is everywhere. 

“I know I’m right.”

The door opens and they wheel Ethan into the hallway, beckoning me to come. Benjamin tries to follow us.

“Go home Benjamin,” I say. 

He nods. 

I follow the nurses and Ethan. Ethan is OK, nothing major is broken or punctured or collapsed. I breathe smoothly for the first time in hours. 

“We’ll watch him tonight, then he can go home with you in the morning,” the doctor says. “Why don’t you go home and get some things, we can bring in a cot for you.”

I nod and somehow get myself home in a cab. 

The house is dark. 

I walk in through the garage, flipping lights as I go. I can’t remember the last time I ate anything. I see a box of granola bars open on the counter and I grab one, bite it open, scarf it down. 

“Benjamin?” I call into the silence. 

He doesn’t answer. A chill starts at the back of my neck and zips down my spine. He’s here. I can feel him here. I can smell him. I listen for the shower and hear nothing. 

I tiptoe through the house, turning on lights, my throat closing.

Please God. I can’t do this today. Please let him not have done this. 

Every step of the staircase amplifies my worry and also my fury. No Benjamin, don’t. But I’ll understand. The two truths that eat at me always. I’ll be lost if he kills himself and I’ll also be relieved. I have never said this aloud before, but it is the truth. 

I reach the top of the stairs and it’s silent. Oh Benjamin. I tiptoe down the carpeted hallway, leaning against the wall, sliding towards our open door. The door would be closed, if he…wouldn’t it? 

I find him on the floor of our bedroom, sitting with his back against the bed. 

“Heather…” he slurs when I walk in. 

Somehow in the hour since he’s come home, he has gotten fall-down drunk again. I wonder if he was drunk at the hospital and I just didn’t see it. 

“Heather…” 

I hate hearing my name in his mouth when he’s like this. I can’t reason with him now. It’s not worth the fight we will have, my throat that will be raw from crying and yelling. Most likely he will remember none of it. 

“Go to bed Benjamin,” I say, shoving some clothes and my pills into an overnight bag. A hairbrush. One less thing to deal with, I hear my mind saying, and I am so ashamed. 

He looks at me, his eyes bloodshot, his face blotchy. He has not showered. The smell of murky lake mixes with the stench of sweaty scotch and it’s enough to make me gag. 

“I’ll never forgive myself Heather,” he says, and he’s crying now, his face crumbling into a mask of despair I have seen so many times before. 

I can’t go to him and hug his head to my chest like he’s my child. I have an actual child to take care of. I can’t always save him. 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive you either,” I say. 

He reaches out a hand and I know he expects me to grab it. I know that when I leave, he might not be able to pull himself out of this. I walk by his outstretched arm anyway.

I pack a small bag for Ethan and grab my phone charger from the hallway outside our room. I hear the whimpering from the bedroom but I keep going down the stairs. I love him and I hate him. I want him to be OK and I want him to drink himself to death right there on the rug. 

I go to the garage. My van is still in the woods somewhere, I realize. I go back in and get Benjamin’s keys, listening for something major. A yell or maybe even a shot, but the air is silent. He’s probably sleeping, drooling onto the rug.

I climb into Benjamin’s 80’s Volvo, a car that should have died long ago but somehow keeps on. I take a breath and it smells like my whole past. Peppermint gum, sunflower seeds, scotch, beer, cigarettes, air freshener, tulips, pine, babies, cheerios, construction paper, glue. I feel him around me, his strong arms hugging me from behind, resting his chin on my head. It always hurt a little when he did that. 

I could get out of the car. I could go upstairs and fold myself into Benjamin’s body, rub his back, help him throw up. I could promise him things I don’t believe. 

I sit in silence for what seems like a very long time. 

Eventually I turn on the ignition and pull slowly out of the garage. I have someone else to take care of. 

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest Station, Ed Week, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, and The Huffington Post among others. She runs writing retreats and workshops internationally, and leads an annual intensive workshop at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and a Doctorate from Harvard University in Education. She has written an acclaimed instructional manual: Writing Workshop; How to Create a Culture of Useful Feedback that is used in universities and workshops all over the world. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband and two children and is currently working on a memoir and a novel. Francesca is an editor at The ManifestStation.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Gravel

November 6, 2020
manya

Hi! Jen, Angela and I are thrilled to welcome you to Fiction Fridays!  On the first and third Friday of each month, we will feature fiction, so take a break from all the chaos and read a story or two as you head into the weekend. You’ll be happy you did, we’re sure of it.   TGIFF!  –Francesca

By Misty Urban

The wooden sign said Cabin Rentals. The letters had endured scorching heat, thunderous rainstorms, insect swarms, and the relentless bore of the salt breeze, yet there they stood, a stubborn etching, a well-worn shrine. The building showed quiet neglect. Planks of siding sagged into one another, furred with lichen and warped with moisture. The screen door hung aslant, large slashes tearing the mesh. Faded oaks trailed gobbets of Spanish moss over the toothed wooden shingles of the roof, gracious swag of eaves cupping the flat grey bowl of sky. Before, this had always seemed comfortable, a refuge. Now it was tired.

As she grasped her hand along the wooden rail of the stairs Manya felt a hard, dry splinter pierce her palm. She tugged at the projecting end and it broke, leaving a dark needle tucked beneath her skin.

Inside, the room smelled of seaweed, dark and salt-sticky. Out the window, small green brackenish things poked through dirty white sand.

Manya put the jagged splinter in the pocket of her jeans, smoothed her thumb over the reddening wound. “Hello?”

Maps tracing trail routes dripped from the walls of the rental office. Manya’s boots scuffed the dirty floor. Open brochures advertised prices for cabins and primitive sites. Firewood: four dollars for a bundle of finger-thin sticks. Across the street, Tuesdays and Thursdays, meetings for nature walks led by rangers from the state park. Manya knew them, eager and trained, their pressed brown uniforms with the Florida Park Service patch on the sleeve, a cross between a military rank and a Boy Scout badge. She studied canoe rental prices, restrictions on burning, a guide to the area’s venomous snakes. The small silver dome of a bell stared at her beside the cash register. The plunger made a useless click.

The woman who emerged from the back room had a robust glow that made the place seem quaint rather than shabby. Her cinnamon hair showed a margin of embarrassed blonde at the part. A cotton button-down shirt over a tight tank top, she had the sunburned look of a healthy, athletic woman who had never learned how to use cosmetics but slapped them on now as a barricade against advancing age.

Manya rubbed her stinging palm on her blue jeans. She should have put on a clean shirt. She should have combed her hair. She looked neglected, too.

“Reservation?” The woman’s voice held a rasp, from cigarettes or sea air. She glanced at the binder on the counter, flipped a page.

“Markova.” Manya placed her backpack on the floor and waited. Pages riffled. The woman’s look hit Manya on the chin, thin and narrow.

“Tourist?”

“Not anymore.” She shouldn’t need to explain this every time. The naturalization ceremony at seventeen, the tests and the solemn oath in the courthouse while the Girl Scouts dipped and swirled the flag. The university tried to charge her as an international student, though she’d lived in the country since she was five. She was tired of justifying her existence.

“Says here two adults.”

Manya smoothed her hand along the seam of her jeans. “It’s just me.”

“Same price.” She snapped open a receipt book. Manya looked at the golden wedding band on the woman’s finger. Tanned skin folded around it like protection. Beneath the metal, Manya guessed, the skin was stark white, like the underbelly of a sea-going creature that never saw light.

“The other . . . my . . .” She tried again. “He died,” Manya said.

That look again, a quick swoop, not quite to the level of Manya’s eyes. The woman’s voice dropped a pitch, thick as syrup. “You poor thing. I’m so sorry.” Her vowels opened at the end like wings. I’m so sorr-ah. The gull-eyes dipped to Manya’s left hand, bare of ring or markings. The cotton shoulders gathered in a shrug.

“Need linens?” she said, scratching the paper.

“Yes.” Manya bit her lip. She needed so many things.

“I’ll bring ‘em out before supper.” Her host tore off a receipt and held it over the plastic-capped counter. “You pore thing.”

“It was sudden,” Manya said. “No warning. Just like that.” She picked up her backpack and held the straps with both hands.

“Those are the worst,” the woman agreed. She pointed east. “Last one on the left.”

“You still have canoes for rental?”  Manya handed her cash.

“Oh, honey, there’s weather comin tonight,” the woman assured her, ringing open the cash register. “Didn’t you see that sky?”

Manya regarded the sky as she parked before the last cabin in the row and heaved open the hatchback. Sadie sailed out in a spatter of hot fur. The sheltie was just starting to lose her winter coat. She thrust her nose in the air, desperately sniffing. The sky was the color of the water was the color of the sea oats bending in the breeze. A watercolor by a troubled artist: Glowering Sky with Dog. Sadie charged into the gulf and kicked up a sheet of spray. The droplets sprang high and hung for a moment, turned slowly, then collapsed into the tide while the dog tried to bite them out of the air.

Manya had forgotten the sound of the ocean. That thrumming like an endless world-size heart, hurling the water onto the sand and then, repentant, taking it back.

The tent sat rolled in its factory sealed bag. Manya pushed it aside. They had talked, long ago, of tenting together, going deep into the woods. Interesting couples shared a hobby. Winter camping, trail camping, backwoods country wide open to just the two of them, tucked like turtles into their below-zero sleeping bag. He was a mountain boy, wind in the blood. He left the unused tent with her after that last calm discussion, when he walked down the long flight of stairs into nothing. He left everything behind.

She’d reserved the luxury cabin, the biggest they had. One broad room, a fireplace flagged with attractive grey stone, a deep couch facing the window facing the sea. A sink and more counter space than a restaurant. A door leading to the closeted bathroom, and stairs circling to the loft overhead. The smell of sawdust, motes drifting through the pine-damp air. A quiet mold on the inside of things, like regret.

Manya stood in the center of the room, falling into the forgotten pulse of the ocean. She listened for her heart, for what it was doing deep in there, but had no sense of it beating. Nobody thought about the heart and its steady work until, of course, it stopped working. She wondered who had helped him, who had come around the corner of the locker room to find him stranded on the cold tile, one hand to his gasping chest. The shut row of metal doors slanting down around them. The email sent out to everyone said he hit his head on one of the wooden benches. The coroner’s report noted the contusion, not contributing to death. She imagined his hands clenched into the fabric of his sweaty T-shirt, or perhaps covering his throat. And the person who found him thinking, oh shit, oh shit, this is the end of my nice normal day.

She wondered who had called Jeannette. His wife.

She stood yet in the center of the room, watching the clouds like a layer cake billow from west to east, when a sharp knock blew the door open. Upstairs, a thump as Sadie threw herself off the bed and slip-slid down the narrow stairs.

“Thought I’d bring em now. I got time.” The cabin keeper wore grey slacks and a pair of muddy boots.

“Oh.” Manya held out her arms for the bedsheets. The woman moved past her and set the folded items on the couch. Her eyes moved along the room, looking to see what Manya had brought to the place. Luggage, extra blankets, candles wrapped within them. Hardly any food.

“Y’all right?” Her eyes were grey, too, like the sky. An effect of living too long next to the ocean, where the wind could be cold through the winters. storms drawing the color out of everything, the idle boredom, the visitors leaving, always leaving.

“I’m all right,” Manya said.

“What was it, then?” the woman asked.

“What was what?” Manya put a hand on the stack of linens. Already they bore a fine sheen of sea salt.

“Your husband. You said it was quick.”

“Oh,” Manya said. “Aneurism. Heart.” Had she said he was her husband?

The woman put her hand on her chest, just as Manya had when she first heard the news. Checking. She’d held it there for the most of that day, skipping the class she taught, calling in sick to the testing site. She imagined Jeannette, now a widow, doing the same thing, perhaps right this moment at the wake in the funeral home, holding an arm across her chest as people filed by and collapsed against her. Tomorrow, during the funeral, there would be eulogies from astounded friends. He was so young, they would all say. He ran marathons. He had a strong heart, a many-miled heart. It should have gone on pumping in all its electro-hydraulic splendor for decades, millions more beats left in it.

From the beginning, he called Manya once in a while, late at night. At first she didn’t answer. In the messages it sounded like he was crying.

The storm hung in the sky all evening, waiting. Manya took Sadie for a walk.  She remembered more sand, more wildness, more beach, but there was only a strip of nubbly gravel shielding the water from the bristle of sea oats along the embankment. Shells and pebbles swatched the sand, a tiny crunch beneath her feet. The musty smell like a basement, moisture so thick the air was viscous. She remembered the breeze clean and sharp.

Insects grated from the trees, rising and falling like waves. The sea moved toward her and the sky away, a dappled grey tabby streaked with dust. Sadie’s hair stood straight with electricity. The thunder sounded like distant traffic, the dim row of cabin lights strung like pale bright shells along the shore. The sand was light oatmeal, shale spotted with bits of red and blue, stretching away into a moist fog. Any moment he might walk from it, arms full of driftwood for a fire, stepping from another world where his heart was still beating, a world where she had said yes.

A red, raised nimbus circled the tiny jag of wood in her palm, working its way in. He told her on their first date that he had gravel under his skin. Boyhood accident, a header over the handlebars of his bike. The road peeled layers from his hip and leg but his elbow hit first, driving small rocks deep under the epidermis. His parents, Christian Scientists, saw no need for doctors to tell them the debris was safe to stay there. It was earth-made material; the cells, living and dying, would push the foreign matter out.

But the elbow scabbed, then healed, and a bumpy, bubbly patch remained. Manya had liked the strange texture of it, the terrain of an alien planet. Skin beneath her fingers, but something else terrestrial deep beneath that. She was no biologist; she studied geophysics, the land with its features and fields and inevitable forces. She understood electromagnetics, thermometrics, the hydrology of his sweating body, the moving plates of his bones. The meteorology of their combined atmosphere, with its strange and unmeasurable currents.

Manya paused as Sadie sniffed a spot on the beach. The trees fretted, tossing up their branches. The rustling wind sounded like rain. Small leaves and bits of moss revolved through the air. The chant of the insects grew monotonal. The dog lifted her sandy muzzle and whined.

Manya grabbed a loose stick and pried at the small dome of sand. The scissored claw of a crab emerged first, then its body, upside-down. With the stick she flipped it over. It clipped to the side, leaving small mounds of sand in its trail, then paused, resting. It must have been suffocating, trapped in the small space it had fled for refuge.

He’d planned adventures for them, safaris in Africa, canoe trips down the Amazon. It was she who said they should date other people. He grew heavy in sleep, throwing his arm across her chest, pressing her deep into the blankets. His hands started to clutch. On the wall calendar he outlined in black marker the weeks she was gone for conferences or research. The gravel under his skin itched.

Jeannette was Catholic. She believed in insurance, checkups. His voice on the messages had the tone she’d heard when he called her name in his sleep. Deep in nightmares he muttered the Russian phrases he learned so he could phone her parents. Hello. How are you. I am well, thank you. May I speak to Manya? Is Manya there?

The storm broke when she was still half a mile from the cabin. The trees raged with wind and loose leaves swooped like bats. Tendrils of lightning struck and shimmered, magnified. Thunder rattled her teeth. Sadie streaked for shelter as the first cold drops fell and goosebumps blossomed on Manya’s arms. The rain whirled to meet her, blurring the world like a dusty mirror. Raindrops bounced off her shoulders, her calves, the back of her neck, places that for a long while had been touched by no hand but her own. The rain dotted her skin in frantic code.

Manya closed her eyes and lifted her face, listening to the message being tapped into her. She was alive. The ocean swelled and roared as raindrops patterned its surface. She’d forgotten how it felt, the ragged desperation of it, the joy that caught in the chest. The man she had loved was dead, and she was alive.

At the cabin, she toweled off and filled the kettle with cold water. Visiting hours were over. The room would be empty save for the chairs and flowers, the poster boards of pictures, his marathon medals and track trophies, the dried corsage from their wedding. Manya had been on a research semester in Brazil but she mailed a leaded glass cocktail set as a gift. A few weeks after the honeymoon, she received a thank-you card embossed with the wife’s new initials. Graceful handwriting expressed their gratitude for the glasses, gave their new address. Much later Manya realized neither of them drank.

And then what? His wife would go home to the house they bought together. His parents would return to their hotel and pray. Jeannette would ask her high school friends to stay with her, the same women who had been her bridesmaids. She was not the type to spend nights alone. She would press her dress for the funeral the next day, set out her shoes, put Kleenex and aspirin in her matching purse. She would stay up late weeping, or staring dry-eyed at the ceiling, into a darkness so complete it silenced the terror.

Manya built a fire and unrolled the sleeping bag on the sanded floor. The kettle boiled. She wasn’t required to fast, but she would anyway. She draped a cloth over a driftwood side table and set out her icons, her rosary, her prayerbook, the candles she had lit for him every night since the call. The air was too thick for thought. She watched the fire climb the stiff currents, bend itself in a plunging ballet.

He thought her work, her research came between them. He thought reasoned arguments would bring her back. In her family they arranged marriages, daughters matched with the nice sons of childhood friends. As mates they were kind, respectful, polite. They did not produce tempestuous declarations, tears and longings. From that first kiss outside out dorm room, the hurried embraces in the halls of her lab, she knew there was no way they fit together, him sweaty from basketball practice, her hands smelling of copper. He was a cowboy and she was Russian. They lived on different tectonic plates.

The phone on the wall rang. Manya dropped her rosary. She’d turned off her cellphone, no service. Who knew she was here?

The phone rang again, and Manya approached slowly, surprised the power had not been knocked out. She lifted the black receiver. “Hello?”

“Call for you,” the rental woman said, and Manya heard a series of clicks, then an uncertain voice, a woman’s. “Hello?”

“Jeanette?” Manya said.

“Manya?” She sounded confused. Manya imagined her looking at the phone, frowning. She’d had a tiring day and would be fuzzy-headed from weeping. “You’re at this number? I . . .” She trailed off. They never knew what to say to one another.

“How are you?” Manya whispered.

Jeannette started to cry. The sounds were quiet beneath the wind pounding the window, but Manya heard the small gasps for air. She felt a needle in her heart and wondered if that was what he had felt, except larger, a swell like the tide and then the startling burst.

“Are you coming tomorrow?” Jeanette asked between hitches.

“I hadn’t planned to,” Manya said.

A gulp, then a small high hiss, like the cry of a bird. “He would want you there.”

Manya looked at the prayer candles, the three flames dipping and dancing in the currents of air. “I’ll come if you want me,” she said.

“It’s so awful,” Jeannette sobbed. “I had to buy him underwear. I bought my husband new underwear to bury him.” That high, steady whine again. It sounded like a gale blowing in from the gulf. “His mother complained about the coffin I picked. She didn’t like the silver handles. And he—Manya, it doesn’t even look like him. They put him in so much makeup.”

Out the window Manya watched the lightning streak between the upper banks of clouds, bands of dark holding the blinding flash. Manya pictured him in his navy suit, his face old beneath the embalming, all the clever tricks applied to dead flesh. He would not look like someone either of them had known, had touched every inch of.

“Everyone keeps talking about how young he is. How sudden. Looking at him to figure out—what I did to him. What I did wrong.” Jeannette lost herself in sobbing.

In the fire a stick snapped its fingers, and Manya jumped. Outside, the trees howled and threw up their hands.

After a while, Jeannette quieted. “I found this number in his work planner.” Manya heard her hoarse breathing. “He said he was going away with a friend.”

He’d come here often with her, their getaway while she was in graduate school, he in training at the law firm. He’d proposed to her in a canoe on the river trail, the vessel rocking slightly as he knelt. The summer heat had itched her skin and tiny black flies tacked to her eyes and her sweaty neck. She closed her mouth when he asked her. The words knocking at her lips were nonsense rhymes her baba had sang to her, games she had played in the preschool of a village that no longer existed. He’d left and she’d stayed, with her lab and her St. Olga cross and her dreams in Russian, and she didn’t have to go to races or office parties or American ball games anymore.

“I come here this time every year,” Manya said. “He must have remembered.”

A long silence, while the wind whined. “He’s been calling you?” The voice tiny, spoken through a small point, far away.

Manya rubbed the raw swell of her palm over her heart. “Once or twice,” she said. “Just catching up. You know he is good—was good—at keeping in touch.”

She stumbled over the tenses. Waited for Jeannette to piece things together, catch her in the lie.

“I don’t understand any of this,” Jeannette said, her voice faint, thin, weary. “Nothing makes sense. I feel gutted.” A pause. “You should be there. For him.”

Manya looked at the red furrow in her hands. “I’ll come,” she said.

She fixed lemon tea and stoked the fire and thumbed her rosary, stroking the old beads, the weighted tassels. The thunder roared and hurled itself across the gulf to the distant lands beyond. She understood what was required. Penance. A final goodbye. Confession, witness, and absolution, so Jeannette believed things were over. Would never know she had almost lost her husband again.

Morning dawned light as a pearl. The sky held the same white tint as the sand, the sea grey as the sea oats. Manya found the crab. It had pulled its body a few inches from its hole and anchored its one claw into the sand, holding against the tide. With her foot Manya bunched sand around the carcass and wondered why no other animal had disturbed it. She couldn’t have known it was dying.

She placed the stack of linens on the plastic counter at the rental office, floral side up. The woman wore the same button-down shirt. The blonde roots showed a wider margin, already reclaiming their own. She patted the top sheet gently.

“Storm keep you awake?” she asked.

“No,” Manya said honestly.

“I guess everybody grieves different,” the woman said. Her sharp eyes fastened on Manya’s left ear.

“I found a crab on the beach last night,” Manya said at the door. She stopped and looked up at the faded map of the Florida Gulf coastline. “It had one claw.”

The woman watched her. “Stone crab,” she said, as if she could still hear the foreign accent, as if Manya knew nothing about the United States, nothing about the deep and secret workings of the earth. “That’s how they harvest them. It grows back.”

“This one won’t,” Manya said.  “It was dead this morning.”

The man’s shirt fluttered as her shoulders rolled, the ring on her finger winking. This woman wouldn’t know how the heart could swell from all that was stuffed into it, hurt and anger, guilt and neglect, growing so fat and gluttonous and engorged that its burst open. What had he thought about in those last seconds? His wife, and his lie to her? Maybe it felt like pitching headfirst over the handlebars, that fiery burn as the blood rushed everywhere, spinning weightless in a moment of space, far from the safe warm hands of prayer.

Manya didn’t have an answer. Why she had told him the date, made the reservation. Why, after all this time, she’d said yes.

A swallow-tailed kite dipped past the window, giving its lonely cry.

“It’s not something you’d wish on anybody,” the woman said.

Manya pulled the door shut behind her.

Sadie leapt into her seat in the back of the wagon and settled on the unused tent. Next to it sat the jar holding her real wedding present from Brazil: rainforest soil, for that trip they’d never taken. In five hours she would be there, file into St. Mary’s with everyone else in their quiet shades of black. There would be beautiful words, tears and flowers, solemn ritual to surround the magnificent blankness of death. Manya would stand with Jeannette next to his grave and say the words she’d owed him for a long time. They would fall the way the rain pockmarked the ocean, brief and then disappearing, bubbling like gravel under an elbow it had once been hers to kiss.

Manya turned the car north, toward the highway, toward the priest and the quiet confession. Behind her the horizon of sea stood empty, blank and still. She looked at her hand and saw that the skin of her palm had closed over the splinter, encasing it as in glass. She would carry it with her, a memory made flesh. If she could not be forgiven then at least she, too, would be marked.

Misty Urban is the author of the story collections A Lesson in Manners and The Necessaries. Recent stories have appeared in Fiction Attic, District Lit, Sweet Tree Review, Literary Mama, and from Write Out Publishing. Find her online at mistyurban.net or femmeliterate.net, a website for women in/and/of books.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Call for Submissions, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Announcing Fiction Fridays and a Call for Submissions

October 30, 2020
fiction

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion

We are excited to announce our new FICTION FRIDAYS!

We know stories can tell deep truths, and that those truths come in many forms. As much as we love personal essays and other creative nonfiction, sometimes we yearn for the freedom that fiction can give.

We want to read your stories, however you write them.

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” Albert Camus

The first and third of every month, we will publish a piece of short fiction (max 6000 words, but we’d prefer 3-4000).

This is a new angle for us, so we’re starting slow, but we hope that you will submit your short stories and other short fiction for consideration. Anything goes – contemporary to historical to mystery to realism to fantasy to romance. Serious to humorous; heartfelt to wry.

Tell us your stories, we can’t wait to read them!

Submit now

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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